The word got out in China that eating poultry could give you bird flu, whether it’s true or not is yet to be discovered, but massive amounts of people throughout the country are not taking any chances.
The word got out in China that eating poultry could give you bird flu, whether it’s true or not is yet to be discovered, but massive amounts of people throughout the country are not taking any chances. Chicken and other bird products have been cut out of their diets of millions of Chinese, which has spelled disaster for anyone in the poultry business.
Before the recent outbreak of a new strain of bird flu (H7N9) two weeks ago, there were around 100 million poultry farmers in China. Many of these were small time, family farmers, who bread and sold chickens, ducks, pigeons, and other birds for their day to day sustenance.
I reported last week from a live poultry market in Taizhou, whose vendors were all small time farmers who were facing the backlash of the bird flu scare. Their businesses were on the decline as their product became the country’s next big taboo. But they were still operating, though many other live poultry markets in nearby cities were already shut down by local authorities for fear that the birds could continue the spread of the potentially lethal virus.
I returned to this market today and found a completely different scene. They too had been shut down. The doors of their little shops were closed, their cages were empty, and there were no birds to be found anywhere. When I was there last time these vendors tried hard to reassure me that their birds did not carry any malicious diseases, but the city, apparently, did not concur. Their birds, I’m assuming, were culled along with their business.
There are far more victims of bird flu in China than the 77 that have so far contracted the infection.
More on Vagabond Journey: How the Chinese react to bird flu
So far, China’s National Poultry Industry Association, estimates that $1.6 billion have been lost by China’s poultry producers and vendors since bird flu reared its head again two weeks ago. In the east of the country, where the initial outbreak and most of the cases have occurred, poultry consumption has been cut in half.
Next to the United States, China is the world’s second largest consumer of poultry in the world. Up until recently, chicken was viewed as an alternative protein source to pork, China’s staple meat, which itself became the object of a string of food quality scares that culminated with 20,000 pigs being mysteriously dumped into rivers. Over the past few years, chicken restaurants, including KFC, have been flourishing across the country, and then, bang, the industry’s lights went out.
KFCs are no longer packed full of raging chicken eaters, fried chicken stalls sit virtually desolate, and many stores, markets, and restaurants that made poultry their business have closed up shop. Millions of birds have been systematically slaughtered and live poultry markets in dozens of cities have been closed — some, like in Shanghai, potentially permanently.
More on Vagabond Journey: Kill all birds: China’s avian flu prevention measures go extreme
But this decline in poultry sales is not just because of shaken consumer confidence. Poultry is simply becoming unavailable or more difficult to purchase throughout large parts of the country. At some supermarkets you actually need to be certified in order to purchase poultry products. The below sign is posted in the poultry section of Carrefour, a large supermarket chain:
The customer who wants to purchase poultry products have to get the poultry sales card. Please don’t forget! Thanks for your cooperation!
So in order to purchase chicken at the supermarket you need be specially approved and have a card to prove it. If nothing else, China is serious about eradicating bird flu — even at the expense of killing its poultry industry.
How long China’s poultry scare will continue is anyone’s guess, but, in what can only be taken as an ominous sign, sales on even imported chicken have declined by 80%. Usually, when there is a food safety scare in this country — such as with dairy products — those who can afford it will gravitate towards imported versions, but this hasn’t been the case with this outbreak of bird flu. Massive amounts of the Chinese population are avoiding all poultry, no matter where it comes from.
More on Vagabond Journey: Imported Foods: A Band Aid For China’s Contaminated Food Problem?
What is interesting is that medical professionals, including the WHO, are still confused about how this strain of bird flu is actually being caught by humans, and there is only a slight causal link between consuming poultry and becoming infected. If fact, 40% of people who have contracted the infection have reputedly had no recent contact with poultry at all. In fact, the latest cases of bird flu were in Shanghai, where the virus first broke out and authorities first began preventive measures (i.e. slaughtered all the birds and closed the poultry markets).
H7N9 remains a mysterious virus, but the people of China continue to remain pragmatic throughout the epidemic. About how this recent bird flu outbreak effected her life, Da Xie, a resident of Taizhou, said, “We don’t eat chickens, ducks, goose, or pigeons now. Besides we can’t get any chickens or pigeons in the market at present. We are eating bee, vegetables, and fruits instead.” Felix Gervais reports from Jiangyin, where there was recently a confirmed case of bird flu:
The female teacher said bird flu scares her, to the point that she doesn’t eat any more meat unless she prepared it herself. She also said she now cleans her cutting board thoroughly if she is to cut vegetables after cutting raw meat, which is odd to me as I’d imagine everybody does that already.
The male teacher laughed and said he doesn’t give a shit… not scared at all.
The student said it makes him a bit nervous, and he washes his hands all the time now, especially before/after eating. His parents haven’t changed their life habits at all, though.
These pretty much represent the three common takes on bird flu prevention here. Some take an extremely cautious route, and have altered their diets and behavior; some take the middle road and simply up their personal hygiene and sanitation practices; while others are not fazed, and carry on as usual — enjoying the discounted chicken where it’s available.
Regularly updated map of confirmed cases of bird flu