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Health Officials Take on "Chicken Lunch" to Allay Panic

Gao Qiang, China's Executive Vice-Minister of Health, broke his 30-year diet Monday by having chicken for lunch.

Biting into a well-braised drumstick, Gao said he hadn't had chicken or other meat like beef, pork and mutton for many years "for the sake of animal welfare".

By breaking his personal rules, Gao said he wished to send a message to the public that it was safe to eat chicken and eggs so long as they were cooked properly and passed quarantine checks.

Since China reported its first case of avian influenza on the mainland on Jan. 27, the government has tightened quality and quarantine checks of live poultry and poultry meat sales, but the reluctance to eat poultry meat has spread quickly among the public.

KFC, the popular fast food chain specializing in fried chicken, admitted that even though its 1,000 outlets in China have been operating normally, some had fewer customers.

China has a huge commercial poultry flock and its egg production accounted for 40 percent of the world total. To minimize the effects of bird flu on the country's poultry industry and daily life, the government is intensifying information campaigns to allay public fears.

Gao's chicken lunch was not unique. Officials of the Ministry of Agriculture had a chicken lunch the same day. Officials from some affected areas including Shanghai, Guangdong and Zhejiang staged similar scenarios a few days earlier.

Wang Jianrong, deputy director of the Health Ministry's department of health law and supervision, said poultry meat was regularly served at the ministry's dining hall, even after the bird flu outbreak started.

Wang said he liked to eat chicken and never had any concerns. His confidence partly came from his work.

From Feb. 4, the ministry started regular health inspections of live poultry and meat sales. Reports from local inspection teams will be delivered to Wang's department every day.

Authorities also carried out strict culls in areas where bird flu was reported. The Ministry of Agriculture said over 1.2 million birds had been killed from Jan. 27 to Feb. 4. To date, no human infections have been reported on the mainland.

Governments of other Asian countries hit by bird flu are also increasing publicity to ease public fears. The Thai government has hosted a week-long chicken banquet to encourage people to eat chicken.

"Chinese and international health officials have reiterated that eating chicken is safe as long as the meat has passed quarantine and is well-cooked, but some people still have fears," said Qi Xiaoqiu, director of the department of disease control of the Health Ministry.

"I hope the fact that we health workers eat poultry meat can help dispel doubts," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency February 9, 2004)

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