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LCQ10: Supply of live poultry

     Following is a question by the Hon Tommy Cheung and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (June 30):


     It has been reported that in early June this year, the Secretary for Food and Health indicated to the media that live chickens in Hong Kong could now be regarded as luxury goods and such an phenomenon could be related to the prevailing policies, yet the authorities would neither increase the supply of mainland live chickens to Hong Kong nor relax control over the number of live chickens kept at local farms, so as to bring down the prices of live chickens.  Moreover, the University of Hong Kong (HKU) announced that it had discovered a compound that could attack influenza viruses, and would further develop the compound into a new target therapy drug for treating influenza.  By then, viruses such as avian influenza (AI), human swine influenza and influenza A may be inhibited more effectively.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether it has assessed if the phenomenon that live chickens can be regarded as luxury goods is related to the authorities' prevailing policies; if the assessment result is in the negative, how the authorities strike a balance between safeguarding the consumers' interests of members of the public and safeguarding their health, so as to avoid the retail prices of live chickens from soaring persistently, and ensure that members of the public will not find live chickens unaffordable due to financial reasons;

(b) given that the authorities have pointed out that following the ban on overnight keeping of live poultry in retail markets, the loading of influenza A virus, which is an AI virus, has been decreasing significantly, whether the authorities will consider increasing the number of imported live chickens and those kept at local farms appropriately; if they will, of the details;

(c) whether the authorities have estimated the percentage increase in the risk of human infection by AI viruses when the supply of live chickens imported from the Mainland increases from a daily average of 7,000 chickens at present to 140,000 chickens; if they have, of the methodology and the outcome of the estimate; if not, why they have refused to increase the supply of mainland live chickens to Hong Kong without conducting such an estimate; and

(d) given that some members of the catering industry have indicated that the competitiveness of Hong Kong as a culinary capital has been declining gradually due to the lack of supply of live waterfowl, whether the authorities will consider allowing the supply of an appropriate number of waterfowl such as live ducks, geese and pigeons to be resumed in the market, or supplying them to restaurants under specific control measures, so that traditional cuisines prepared with live waterfowl can continue to be offered; if they will not, whether they will reconsider relaxing control over the sale of live waterfowl after the anti-influenza drug is successfully developed by HKU?  



     Over the years, the Government's primary consideration in introducing measures at different levels of the live poultry supply chain is to minimise the risk of avian influenza (AI) infection, in order to protect public health.  Like all influenza viruses, the AI virus changes constantly in response to changes in the environment and hosts.  As such, health authorities around the world always remain highly vigilant to guard against the outbreak of an epidemic.  Besides, the World Health Organisation has recently pointed out that the emergence of new confirmed cases of AI infection in human and poultry over the past few months shows that the virus still poses a threat to human health.  Nevertheless, as experts all over the world have obtained better understanding of the propensity of the AI virus over the past few years and have adopted targeted measures to prevent AI, the risk of human infection of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) has been kept at a relatively low level.

     In late 2009/early 2010, the Government conducted a scientific assessment to evaluate the risk of human infection by AI viruses associated with the live poultry trade in Hong Kong.  The Scientific Committee on Emerging and Zoonotic Diseases (Scientific Committee), chaired by Professor Yuen Kwok-yung and comprising doctors, veterinarians, microbiologists and other experts, discussed the assessment report on March 26, 2010.  The Scientific Committee agreed that the risk of AI to Hong Kong has been significantly reduced in recent years.  It confirmed the efficacy of the control and surveillance measures at all levels.  However, as the situation would keep changing, the Scientific Committee suggested that we need to maintain vigilance against AI and that the existing measures should be maintained and reinforced.

     To consistently and effectively contain the risk of AI at a low level, the Government will keep the number and maximum rearing capacity of local chicken farms, as well as the number of live poultry retail outlets unchanged.  Besides, the daily quantity of imported live chickens will not increase.  The ban on the keeping of live poultry overnight in retail markets imposed since July 2008 will also continue to be in force.  At the same time, we will enhance the AI preventive and control measures implemented at various levels of the live poultry supply chain, and increase the number of test samples at the import, wholesale and retail levels.

     The reply to the different parts of the question is as follows:

(a) In the past year, the supply of live chickens is sufficient and stable.  The wholesale price of live chickens was also generally stable last year.  The weighted average wholesale price in the first half of this year is lower compared to the same period last year, but as usual, there is greater price volatility before festivals.  As for retail price, apart from the greater volatility during festive times, price variation is also observed across districts.  In sum, the retail price of live chickens depends on a basket of factors such as weather, season, supply, location of retail outlets and festive times, etc.

     There is a plentiful supply of chilled and frozen chickens in the market.  With the advancement in the technology for producing chilled food products, the texture and taste of chilled chickens have become increasingly close to those of live chickens.  In recent years, members of the public are consuming more chilled and frozen chickens.  The consumption rate rose from 79% in 2004 to 94% in 2009, revealing an increasing preference for chilled and frozen chickens.  The public can choose from among different types of chickens according to their own preference and affordability.

(b) and (c) As mentioned above, in order to consistently keep the risk of AI at a low level, the Government will not raise the number of local chicken farms, the maximum rearing capacity or the daily quantity of imported live chickens.  Neither will it increase the number of live poultry retail outlets.  The success in reducing the risk of AI in Hong Kong to the present low level is the result of the implementation of various preventive and control measures at the farm, wholesale, retail and import levels over the past years and is indeed not easy to come by.  We should not expand the scale of the live poultry trade again.  On the contrary, we should continue to vigorously enforce the various preventive and control measures, or else the risk of AI may increase.

     As for maintaining the daily quantity of imported chickens at 7,000, we have taken into account the following two factors: (i) the potential threat of AI to Hong Kong; (ii) the generally stable overall supply of imported and local live chickens in the market in meeting the demand.  In fact, there has been no improvement recently in the overnight stocking of chickens in the Cheung Sha Wan Temporary Wholesale Poultry Market.  On average, several thousands of live chickens are stocked overnight in the Wholesale Market every day.  This shows that the existing supply of live chickens can fully meet public demand.  As such, there is not sufficient justification for increasing the daily imports of live chickens.

(d) Waterfowl are natural carriers of AI viruses.  To prevent HPAI viruses being passed on from waterfowl to chickens, the Government has adopted the policy of segregation of chickens from waterfowl at all levels from import to retail as early as 1998, including the enactment of legislation to prohibit the sale of live waterfowl and other live poultry in the same premises.  For public health reason, the relevant Mainland authorities agreed not to export live geese and ducks to Hong Kong from 2004 onwards.  At present, there is no local waterfowl farm in the territory.  The Government has no intention to re-issue licenses for keeping waterfowl or to resume live waterfowl import.

     Live pigeons are not waterfowl.  On the supply of pigeons, currently about 2,000 to 3,000 live pigeons are still being imported from the Mainland daily to ensure the supply of adequate live pigeons to retail outlets and restaurants.

     We note that the University of Hong Kong has recently announced the latest progress on the research and development of a chemical compound for treating influenza.  We also note that drugs will be manufactured only after successful completion of clinical trials.  Until we know about the efficacy of the drugs concerned, we should not make any assessment on the changes in the risk of AI without scientific evidence at the present stage.

     We will thoroughly reassess the risk of AI and the effectiveness of various preventive and control measures from time to time and closely monitor the possible mutations of AI viruses with a view to ensuring that our policies are serving their purposes.  The Government will reconsider adjusting the prevention and control policy if the situation is reversed.

Ends/Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Issued at HKT 13:20


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