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Bird flu forces KFC to fry up fish

The bird flu rampaging across Asia, killing chickens and humans alike, is starting to take the C out of KFC.
Pedestrians walk past a shuttered Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant Tuesday in Ho Chi Minh City. KFC said it had closed most of its outlets in Vietnam while it pulled its trademark poultry dishes from the menu and switched to fish. Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

The bird flu rampaging across Asia, killing chickens and humans alike, is starting to take the C out of KFC.

In Vietnam, the U.S. fast food chain known for its fried chicken said on Tuesday it had closed almost all its outlets while it switched to a fish menu, as customers were unwilling to tuck in to chicken.

Eight KFC restaurants were shut on Monday in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's commercial centre, which has banned the sale of poultry and culled more than two million chickens.

"It has been very hard for us," Nguyen Chi Kien, KFC's Vietnam deputy country director, told Reuters.

In Bangkok, normally busy KFC restaurants were almost empty at lunchtime, even though health officials said well-cooked meat represented no risk. Shares in KFC's Malaysian franchisee fell.

KFC's website says that out of 12,500 outlets globally it has more than 3,000 restaurants in Asia, around one third of those being in Japan. There are more than 900 outlets in China and Hong Kong, while Thailand and Malaysia account for just over 300 each.

Kien said KFC, a subsidiary of New York-listed Yum Brands Inc, would reopen its Vietnamese restaurants at the end of this week, offering fish burgers.

KFC, one of the communist country's few international fast food chains, along with the Philippines' Jollibee Foods Corp, operates nine restaurants in southern Vietnam.

Chicken has also disappeared from posh restaurants, hotels and homes in big cities in the Southeast Asian nation but is still widely available in the countryside and at street stalls.

As bird flu was confirmed in nine countries and claimed its eighth human life -- a seven-year-old Thai boy -- KFC Vietnam said it might import frozen chickens from North America to replace local birds, which the government is culling.

"I'd never even thought about it but if you'd asked me before I came in, I definitely would not have done," said one expatriate office worker in Bangkok. "Then again, how can any virus survive going through a deep fat frier?"

Sales suffer
A KFC spokeswoman declined to comment on any sales impact, although the chain's main Thai competitor, Chester's Grill, admitted sales had been hit.

"Our sales have dropped between 10 to 15 percent since the outbreak," said Joseph Lau, president of the Global Kitchen, which owns Chester's Grill.

Chicken would stay on the menu, Lau said, but the restaurant would add fish, shrimp and seafood dishes for customers worried about eating poultry, he said.

Shares in Malaysia's KFC Holdings (Malaysia) Bhd slipped 1.4 percent on the Kuala Lumpur bourse on fears over bird flu.

In the Philippines, so far unaffected by the outbreak, fried chicken sales had held up, said Ronnie Areglado, a store manager of a KFC outlet in Manila's business district.

"Business is normal. Our sales remained steady," he told Reuters. KFC has 130 outlets in the Philippines.