Liang Hongfu

Policy inconsistency may hit credibility

By Hong Liang (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-14 07:21
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Unless you are a Cantonese living in Hong Kong, you'd be wondering what the fuss is all about this "live chickens" debate that has been raging sporadically for several years.

Let me explain. Hong Kong people have a special craving for fresh chicken served medium rare. Other than the limited supply from the chicken farms in the New Territories, Hong Kong used to buy truckloads of live chickens every day from the various towns and counties in neighboring Guangdong province.

But this culinary indulgence was brought into question by the repeated threats of an outbreak of the dreaded bird flu epidemic since 2003, prompting the Hong Kong government to propose a ban on the sale of live chicken in the wet markets and other outlets.

Chicken will continue to be made available on dinner tables. But according to the original government plan, they will have to come, chilled or frozen, of course, from the central slaughterhouse to guarantee that no sick bird will slip through the official screening process.

As expected, the proposed safety measures immediately touched off a storm of protests from countless gourmets of the Cantonese cuisine, chicken farmers and live chicken vendors. Joining the chorus of dissent were the traditionalists who expressed serious doubt whether it was proper and respectful to offer frozen chicken, no matter how well they were cooked, at ceremonies in honor of their ancestors.

Taking into account the sensitivity of the issue which touches on Hong Kong's collective taste, the government has adopted a most cautious, and ultimately, indecisive, approach which seems to have pleased no one and offended many.

Central slaughtering was first proposed in 2003 as a government priority. In the following year, the government offered live chicken vendors compensation as an inducement to give up their businesses. Because of the vendors' cool response, the government in 2006 made it known that central slaughtering would begin as early as 2009.

Although the government indicated in 2008 that the central slaughtering facilities would be scaled down, many vendors soon realized that there was no longer any point in rejecting the government offer.

Last week, the government announced that the central slaughtering plan was shelved because of the reduced threat of the bird flu epidemic. This policy back paddling has apparently angered those live bird vendors who had earlier given up their business licenses. Despite the compensation, they complained that they were threatened into giving up a business that could have yielded an income for many years.

Consumers aren't happy either. The vastly reduced number of vendors in the market has resulted in a sharp increase in the prices of live birds. Only 133 of the 800 vendors have remained in business and live chicken imports fell to an average of 7,000 a day from 30,000 in 2004. This has prompted the secretary for food and health Dr York Chow to comment that live chickens in Hong Kong are now a luxury for many families.

I am sure that most Hong Kong families can make do without fresh chicken. What they may not be able to get over with as easily is the government show of inconsistency in this matter of policy. Many of us can still remember the off-hand remark the former chief secretary gave about unannounced changes to his housing policy.

Let's hope that government credibility will never become a luxury.