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Chickening Out on Bird-flu Fears

Over the past year, animal-and-bird-linked scares have made even some devout carnivores question their eating habits.

Last spring, wild animals were blamed for the spread of the deadly SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic. The civet cat and other rodents suspected of carrying the coronavirus that causes SARS were quickly taken off the menu. Many Chinese reluctantly gave up tasting different delicacies for fear of being infected.

Come winter, there were fresh cases of mad-cow disease in North America and the nation banned beef imports from there. Suddenly, the rare steak or stir-fried beef didn't look as appetizing.

And now, chicken and duck -- a staple on many a dining table -- are being shunned because of fears of avian flu jumping to humans from poultry.

Once again, as the bird flu spreads over farms in various parts of the country, people have to carefully ponder what they eat. And in a gastronomic nation, it's time for difficult choices.

Poultry is a major source of food in Chinese cuisine. The birds can be fried, boiled, roasted, steamed, stewed and braised. Popular dishes made out of poultry include gongbao jiding, diced chicken with hot peppers, Peking roast duck and tea-smoked duck.


Tang Ming, who loves chicken soup, says it is "torturous" to skip it.

But for many others, keeping poultry off the plates simply means a temporary change of menu.

"Without chicken, I can eat more fish or shrimp and that will help my plan to keep fit," says Gu Xin, a policewoman.

Many apparently agree, for fish prices have been soaring in markets even as chicken and duck become cheaper.

Though Beijing has not reported any bird flu case so far, supermarkets in the city and local branded chicken raisers have all lowered prices.

Beijing Huadu Broiler Co, a large-scale chicken provider which has retail counters at supermarkets, lowered the price of frozen chicken per kilogram from 13 yuan (US$1.57) to 11.8 yuan (US$1.42), and chicken wings from 27 yuan (US$3.25) to 23.8 yuan (US$2.87) over the weekend.

At Wu-Mart, a large supermarket in Beijing, chickens were labelled with similar favourable prices on Monday, but few people seemed interested.

An elderly woman walking past the frozen chicken section at Wu-Mart told China Daily that the chicken was indeed cheaper, but she dared not to buy them.

"Because the bird flu is here in the country," she said, walking away.

In many Beijing markets, live chickens are not in sight. Chicken cages were all empty in two large markets in Beijing's Chaoyang District.

A young man who used to buy chicken from farmers and then sell them in urban markets told China Daily chicken would not be sold until the bird-flu epidemic is over.

Though experts stress that the virus can be killed in high temperatures (above 70 degrees centigrade), customers are a bit queasy about poultry dishes in restaurants.

"I simply avoid ordering dishes with chicken or duck these days," says Sang Jie, a lawyer, "And I told my family and friends to be careful, too."

"I told my father, who is responsible for the cooking in my family, not even to walk close to chickens in the market," says Gu Xin, reasoning it was "unnecessary" to catch the disease by persisting in eating poultry.

Still, many others do not have such worries.

"Beijing is not even an infected area. I don't understand why people are so worried about chicken," says a young woman who had just ordered a chicken hamburger at McDonald's.

Tang Ruiming, a retired doctor in Beijing, says she will eat chicken just like before.

"Food will be wasted if people do not eat chicken products that have been quarantined and are deemed to be safe," she reasons.

"As long as Beijing is not listed as an infected area, I will eat chicken," says Yu Ying.

Thanks to people like Tang Ruiming and Yu Ying, restaurants like Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Quanjude in Beijing announced that their business have not been hit by bird flu.

KFC, with various chicken items, and Quanjude, famous for Peking roast duck, both claimed that they are confident in the safety of their products, not only because their suppliers have strict quarantine procedures, but also their food products are cooked in high temperature.


Most retail food markets around the city have removed poultry products.

In Caojiadu Food Market, the seven poultry counters had been empty since Sunday.

"Even frozen chicken have been removed," Song, an employee, told China Daily.

Food-processing companies have also been affected.

According to Tang, a shop assistant working in an outlet of Shanghai Dajiang Food Co Ltd, the number of orders for semi-processed chicken meat products showed a clear decline in the past several days.

"Our products have been proved to be safe after the sanitary authorities conducted check-ups both in the company's farm and its outlets but, still, fewer people come to buy our products."

Tang reveals before the reports on the city's suspected bird flu case, the outlet where she worked sold at least some 10 tons of chicken meat per day with the main buyers being the universities and convenience stores.

Zhending Chicken, a famous Shanghai-style steamed chicken restaurant chain, says its business has been "affected" but refused to reveal details of the falling volume at its 22 outlets in the city.

At lunch time on Monday, there were few diners at its outlet on Songshan Lu, near Shanghai's busiest business area. Usually, it is packed with white-collar workers working in nearby office buildings.

Li Jian, a 28-year-old engineer, says he used to eat at Zhending Chicken and some other chicken restaurants but since the first suspected bird flu case was announced in Shanghai, he decided to avoid any chicken food.

"I will keep to it until Shanghai is confirmed to have no such cases," he says.

Brave diners still exist -- 60-year-old Wang Zhihua, who was having lunch at Zhending Chicken yesterday, says he likes the food there and is a frequent customer.

"I think this restaurant is clean enough to keep the disease away," he says confidently.


In Guangdong Province, long considered the most adventurous when it comes to culinary matters, discretion is now considered the better part of valour after two suspected bird flu cases were reported.

Two suspected cases have been detected in Jiedong and Chaoan counties on January 30 and 31 respectively.

We'd rather eat something else, is the attitude of a majority of residents when it comes to poultry.

In Shantou, a coastal city 30 kilometres away from both the infected areas, local spiced-poultry vendors had to switch their business to spiced meat and fish.

"I eat less chicken these days but keep on eating eggs every day, " says Liu Yuzhen, a 24-year-old woman in Guangzhou.

"In fact, I'm not worried about the bird flu, but my mother -- who lives in my hometown Huizhou -- always reminds me try not to eat any poultry," she adds.

Restaurant goers to KFC and Mcdonald's seemed to have switched their orders to fish and beef items.

A shift manager with a McDonald's outlet in Guangzhou, says the sales of the fish and beef food have hit records in recent days while chicken products have seen a slight drop.

(China Daily February 4, 2004)

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