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Culinary Tradition Poses a Health Risk in Hong Kong


HONG KONG — Public health concerns threaten to end a generations-old tradition of Hong Kong food shoppers: buying their poultry live at special markets.

The problem is a recurring avian influenza virus that in recent years has become both difficult and costly for the public health authorities to control. Government leaders, aware of the political sensitivities involved in ordering an end to such a popular tradition, are hesitant to talk of banning poultry, especially chickens, from these markets for good, but many of those involved in the trade believe that it's just a matter of time.

"Eventually, people have to face the fact that we must deal with frozen or chilled chicken," said Mark Yiu-tong, president of the Federation of Hong Kong Restaurant Owners. He predicted that within two years, live chickens will no longer be sold.

Freshly slaughtered chicken is a popular part of the traditional Chinese meal, and in Hong Kong, about 100,000 live birds are sold each day, according to government figures. The live birds--along with fresh fish, meat and vegetables--are sold at "wet markets," so named because the market floors are hosed down at the end of business each day.

For a region that has kept precious few traditions during its transformation from a small immigrant haven to global financial center over the past 50 years, the loss of live poultry in Hong Kong's 80-plus wet markets would be a blow.

Although homemakers love the markets because they can handpick their birds, see them slaughtered on site and know that they are fresh when they hit the dinner table, virologists view them differently. For them, the wet markets are perfect breeding grounds for the airborne flu virus that killed six people in 1997 and early 1998 and led to the slaughter of every chicken in Hong Kong.

Since then, two strains of the extremely mutable virus have surfaced. Although they did not affect humans, they devastated the poultry markets. In May 2001, about 1.2 million chickens from Hong Kong farms and markets were slaughtered as a precaution, and in February thousands more were destroyed when a variation of the virus was discovered on 22 local farms.

Recently, a government-commissioned investigation into the most recent incident found that eliminating the flu is impossible as long as the trade in live poultry exists. By lengthening the time that chickens and other fowl are in the production chain, wet markets provide more opportunity for a virus to develop, mutate and turn deadly.

"There will always be a risk of further outbreaks ... with the accompanying potential risk to public health," the report concluded.

Aside from the public health dangers, the virus has also become a financial burden on the government. So far, authorities in the Chinese territory have paid out more than $15 million in workers' compensation payments during the three avian flu crises and are now forced to spend almost $5 million annually on a surveillance program to monitor markets and farms for any new possible outbreaks.

At least for now, the government seems prepared to spend that money because the wet markets are so popular. Certainly local residents agree that freshly killed chickens taste better than the chilled or frozen alternatives.

"Local Chinese know the difference," said Allan Zeman, a prominent local restaurateur. "There is a distinct taste difference. Some restaurants try to use frozen chicken, and the public just won't accept that."

Livelihoods also are an issue. The local poultry industry, which employs more than 5,000 people, has adamantly opposed any major changes in the way chickens are sold. An underlying fear is that eventually all chicken will be imported chilled from mainland China, essentially putting the Hong Kong poultry industry out of business.

"If live chicken is banned in the wet markets, all the people working in this industry will lose their jobs," said Lee Yuet, spokesman for the Poultry Trade Workers Union. "The government has to be very careful in dealing with this."

Health officials have been trying to improve cleanliness in the wet markets. The markets are closed a day every month for a full disinfection, and there is talk of shutting them down for a second day each month. But that would cut further into already-tight incomes.

Others have proposed a highly controlled central slaughtering facility, but there are doubts that the government would commit to such an expensive plan when eliminating the virus isn't guaranteed.

Although many believe that chickens in wet markets will eventually have to go, few believe that the change will be accepted quietly.

"There would be a huge outcry," Zeman predicted. "And then ... you'd see an illegal chicken market spring up."

One 76-year-old shopper, who identified herself only as Mrs. Leung, seemed to personify the public's reluctance to give up the old tradition, even if the markets do eventually change.

"If the government bans live chickens here, then I'll just have to go to mainland China to buy them," she said, smiling. "I'll find them."

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