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Bird flu fears drive chicken off Asian menus

Across China, which has reported 17 outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus since mid-October, sales of chicken and duck are plummetting and chick prices have dropped up to 90 percent.
/ Source: Reuters

Xiao Si’s family loves to eat chicken. But after many outbreaks of bird flu, she is beginning to doubt safety guarantees about poultry.

“I’m eating a lot less now,” said the housewife, weighed down with shopping outside a supermarket in central Beijing. “I know if you cook it well it’s supposed to be safe, but who knows?”

Across China, which has reported 17 outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus since mid-October and is the world’s largest poultry producer, sales of chicken and duck are plummetting and chick prices have dropped up to 90 percent, state media has said.

“There hasn’t been much news of bird flu yet in the south, but people are still not raising young chicks. If you raise chicks, you’ll surely lose. Who would you sell them to?,” said an official with a large Chinese feed company.

Supermarkets in Beijing have resorted to putting up large signs saying their birds come only from approved slaughter houses, and fast-food chain KFC has posted notices advertising that their cooking practices are hygienic, though without mentioning bird flu.

“I’m eating seafood at the moment,” said Zhang Shuhua, looking askance at a table of chicken legs, breasts, hearts and livers at a wet market in Beijing’s eastern suburbs.

The World Health Organisation says eating poultry and eggs that have been properly cooked pose no threat as the H5N1 virus is sensitive to heat and that to date there have been no cases of infection from eating well-cooked meat or eggs.

But in some parts of Asia, where 67 people have died from bird flu since late 2003, governments aren’t taking any risks.

Officials in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi have been going to all restaurants in the city ordering owners to sign papers pledging to sell only poultry that have been inspected.

On Tuesday a Vietnamese teenager was confirmed with the H5N1 bird flu virus, health officials said.

Doctors from the health department of the northern port city of Haiphong told Reuters laboratory tests showed 15-year-old Vu Van Hoa, who is being treated at a local hospital, had contracted the deadly strain.

“His condition is stable and slowly recovering,” said a doctor from Haiphong’s Viet-Tiep hospital, adding that Hoa had been transfered to another hospital in the capital, Hanoi, for treatment and observation.

Vietnam has been hard hit by bird flu. More than 40 people have died from H5N1 since late 2003. Many millions of poultry have also died or been culled.

“We have stopped selling chicken and duck dishes altogether, and even if we wanted to, there are no more chickens in the market to buy anyway,” said a restaurant owner on Hanoi’s Hang Ga Street, which means “Chicken Street.”

And in Thailand, domestic poultry prices have dropped a third since early October and are now below cost.

“I am eating less chicken nowadays. Before, I would order mainly chicken dishes. It was my favourite. But now I always have second thoughts and would rather order something else,” said Thai office worker Surian Luechathorn.

'There is no problem'
But in other parts of Asia, consumers are feeling more sanguine.

Indonesians in general have not shied away from eating chicken, the staple meat in the country. The only affordable alternative for most people would be fish.

“It’s normal, there is no problem. People still eat here. Maybe they believe chickens are not infected by bird flu,” said Slamet, a street vendor selling fried chicken in Jakarta.

Even in Beijing, KFC outlets remain busy, though parent company Yum Brands Inc did report a rise in October China sales below its own long-term target, in part blamed by analysts on bird flu fears.

Yum declined further comment.

“There’s no need to fear eating chicken,” said airline employee Guo Weiya, 40, walking out of a Beijing KFC outlet. “Information I’ve seen says if you cook chicken to over 60 degrees (Celsius) there is no problem.”

Despite some public affirmations of support for eating chicken in China, sales of pork have risen as consumers turn to what they see are safer food alternatives. Pork sales had slid over the summer on worries over a pig-borne disease that killed nearly 40 people in southwest China.

“People are now eating pork again, since bird flu is a poultry problem, and the price has recovered a lot,” said Chen Chunfu, who raises pigs and peaches an hour from Chengdu, the capital of China’s largest pig-raising province, Sichuan.

Prices for full-grown hogs in China have doubled to about 6 yuan (74 cents) a kilogram, feed industry officials said.

“People are buying less poultry and that’s good news for pork, beef and fish. We are relatively optimistic about pigs. Profits hadn’t been good so far this year,” said a deputy general manager of a Beijing-based company that makes feed additives.

“Bird flu will help relieve some of the pressure on pig farmers’ hearts.”