IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Chicken's back on the menu in China

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 21, 2013

PANIC over the spread of the deadly bird flu across China appears to be subsiding, with a few outbreak-hit provinces rolling back their high-alert state of readiness after reporting no new infections over the past two weeks.

With experts expecting the impending summer heat to weaken the H7N9 virus, three eastern provinces - Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shandong - have announced that they will relax their "emergency response" status introduced last month to contain the virus.

These areas were among those worst-hit by the outbreak, which has sickened 130 so far.

Of this number, 35 had died but another 57 recovered and have been discharged from hospital, state media reported on Sunday.

In Shanghai, plans are underway to re-open its main live poultry market - albeit at half its original size - by the end of next month. It had been shuttered in mid-April, affecting sales in the city, which consumes up to 180 million chickens a year, of which over 70 per cent are bought live.

But with no fresh discoveries of infections in recent days, consumers are starting to relax, according to media reports.

Take Zhejiang, which ended its alert last Thursday after no new cases had surfaced for 28 straight days, for instance.

The coastal province registered 46 infections, of which nine died while 27 have recovered. Poultry sellers in the province's Jiaojiang city's wet markets saw a steady stream of business, local newspapers reported yesterday.

Over in Jiangsu provincial capital Nanjing, long lines once again formed in front of one of the city's popular grilled chicken restaurants over the weekend.

Across China, the number of transactions in the poultry market from May 6 to 12 jumped 25.6 per cent from a month ago, Ministry of Agriculture data released last Friday showed. But they were still 67.2 per cent lower than a year ago.

All this will be welcome news for China's poultry sector, which has suffered losses of 40 billion yuan (S$8.2 billion) so far as consumers shunned the white meat.

The industry has bled some 1 billion yuan of red ink on average a day, the Beijing Times quoted National Animal Husbandry Service head Li Xirong as saying.

To help poultry breeders and processing firms tide over the slump in demand, the government has injected 600 million yuan of subsidies in recent weeks.

State support, along with a recovery in consumer demand, also helped to push up the average price of dressed chicken to 13.51 yuan per kg on May 15 across the country. This is up from an annual low of 12.97 yuan on May 12, official data showed.

Demand is likely to pick up even more with the weather. The H7N9 strain is likely to wilt under the intensifying summer heat due to sweep across China, said experts. The number of flu cases could significantly drop in coming weeks, just "like the Sars epidemic which spread fast in March and then basically subsided by May", H7N9 virus control expert Sun Wenqing told the official China News Net on Sunday.

Still, many cities are not letting down their guard.

This follows a joint report by the World Health Organisation and China on Sunday stating that the H7N9 virus still has a higher potential for human-to-human transmission than any other known bird flu virus.

Shanghai's Agriculture Commission deputy director Shao Linchu said last Thursday the city is still advocating that consumers choose chilled and frozen chicken processed under strict supervision.

Meanwhile, the Beijing municipal government announced that official monitoring for the H7N9 infections will become routine.

Still, a poultry seller at the Hongmiao wet market in the capital who gave her name as Xiao Li expects business to "improve a lot in coming weeks". "I think people overreacted last month, and now they are craving for chicken," she told The Straits Times.

"We are still not allowed to display live chickens at our stalls for sale, but orders for live poultry are increasing a bit every day."

graceng@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 21, 2013

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