People in Hong Kong love fresh chicken. I mean really fresh chicken. The culinary preference is to buy a live chicken right before you're ready to cook it. The man in the stall kills it, cleans it, and off you go.
But this love of fresh poultry is countered by a healthy respect for bird flu. They've been through this before. In fact, they're pioneers.
The first strain of bird flu to ever infect people appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. It sickened 18 people and killed six. To control the outbreak, 1.5 million chickens were slaughtered. That led to major changes in how chickens were handled.
Before 1997, backyard poultry was common in Hong Kong. So was the street-corner sale of live chickens. But by the mid 2000s, the government had cracked down in an effort to thwart future bird flu outbreaks. The number of live chicken vendors was cut from 800 to 132. Local chicken production shrank from 3.9 million per year to 1.3 million. But with the demand for chicken still strong, imports of chicken from mainland China remained important.
Amid a new bird flu outbreak that has sickened 63 people and killed 14, I sat down with Dr. Wing-man Ko, Secretary for Food and Health, to talk about chickens. I asked if he was concerned that poultry coming south might bring the H7N9 virus with them. He said he felt comfortable that he had that covered.
By law, a sample of all live chickens imported into Hong Kong must be screened with a rapid test for the virus. If any chicken tests positive, all chicken imports stop immediately. This law puts pressure on the farms in Guangdong Province to play by the rules.
Wing-man Ko offered to let me see the testing operation, so we set off for the border to see the testing in action.
Hong Kong and mainland China are separated by a buffer zone dating to the period when Hong Kong was a British colony. Each day half a million people pass through that buffer zone traversing the border. Additionally, up to 7,000 live chickens make the trip. Their journey is one way.
We went through the border check post, showed our papers, and pulled in to the poultry screening facility located in the buffer zone. On went the surgical masks.
Truck after truck drove by crammed backed with unhappy pigs. They seemed to know what the future held for them. Then the first truck of chickens pulled in to be screened.
A team of around 15 agricultural workers wearing white coats, rubber boots, surgical gloves and face shields descended on the truck. One worker cut off the seal that had been placed on the door to the truck at the poultry farm in Guangdong Province. Then with the speed and precision of an army drill team, they went to work.
They selected 30 chickens at random from the thousand or so in the truck. Each bird had the same fate: a sample of blood was drawn; a cloacal swab was obtained; and the bird was returned to its cage. The whole operation from the time the truck pulled in to when it departed with a fresh seal took no more than 30 minutes. By law, the seal cannot be removed until at least five hours later, when the rapid testing for H7N9 is completed.
But I still have a few unanswered questions: How good is the rapid test for H7N9? And is testing 30 chickens enough? Perhaps you need to test more to be certain that the flock is clean.
But in the end I came away convinced that Hong Kong is taking this very seriously. They have to. They've seen what a new infectious disease can do.