Public health overrides culinary pleasures

Updated: 2017-04-06 06:26

(HK Edition)

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The Food and Health Bureau on Monday launched a two-month public consultation aimed at gauging popular opinion on an independent consultant's recommendation that current levels of live poultry retail sales should be maintained and no bans should be imposed on live poultry imports from the mainland. This is part of the government's efforts to determine whether (and if so when) a centralized poultry-slaughtering system should be brought in to minimize the threat of avian flu outbreaks in Hong Kong.

Centralized poultry slaughtering became a serious issue after the first outbreak of bird flu at some Hong Kong chicken farms a few years back and has been discussed almost every year. This is because the danger of an epidemic has not gone away and probably never will - thanks to our insistence on cooking freshly prepared birds. It is the government's responsibility to ensure the public is effectively protected from bird flu infections. This is why a public consensus is needed on a ban on the slaughter of live poultry at wet markets.

Like most consumers everywhere, Hong Kong people prefer freshly gutted chickens to frozen ones. We generally believe the latter are tasteless, at least for home cooking. It has been established worldwide that bird flu infection is spread through direct contact with infected birds, humans or other livestock. That means a centralized slaughtering system is the best way to prevent consumers from direct contact with infected chickens or people slaughtering them each day at wet markets. However, given Hong Kong's relatively small consumer market, the cost of a centralized slaughtering system may be too much for local residents to bear.

It is understandable if local consumers do not like the idea of having to pay significantly more for centrally slaughtered live chickens. But it is not understandable, however, if this is used as the main reason to rule out centralized slaughtering of live poultry even when a bird flu epidemic is likely. The fact is there have been multiple live poultry import bans in recent years triggered by bird flu infections at the source; consumers here handled temporary shortages of "tasty" fresh chickens quite well. They realize their health is more important than gastronomic delights.

Conventional wisdom has it that the centralized slaughtering of live poultry is required only when there is no other effective way to prevent a bird flu epidemic. In Hong Kong's case it can happen anytime or may never happen, depending on how successful worldwide efforts are in keeping bird flu under control through vaccination.

We can wish it will never come to that but must be prepared at some stage to "sacrifice" our preferences for freshly killed birds. This is because our physical well-being is at stake.

(HK Edition 04/06/2017 page8)