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Ciptapangan Visitor
Smuggling fears on chicken
posted by admin on 25/04/06

The chinese government has acknowledged there are holes in its defenses aimed at halting poultry smuggling.

Doug Crets

Monday, April 24, 2006

The government has acknowledged there are holes in its defenses aimed at halting poultry smuggling.

Conservationists want authorities to stop the trafficking of poultry from the mainland, an act that they say occurs in broad daylight in Hong Kong waters.

The government does not carry out tests to determine if chickens on sale in village wet markets have been smuggled in. This is something that bothers conservationists.

"[Smugglers] are packing the frozen meat in China and saying it's from other sources. It's easy to just print a box," says Paul Hodgson, a reef specialist who runs a marine consultancy business in Sai Kung, and has spent time observing smugglers.

He said that, on one occasion, he had found more than 60 tonnes of chicken meat on the reefs, some of it in boxes marked "Belgium."

Smugglers use small fishing boats, called P4s, to offload poultry onto islands in New Territories country parks.

In some cases, local fishermen and villagers remove the chicken from the reefs and islands where it is sometimes dumped to avoid detection. Hodgson says such chicken can sometimes end up in village freezers and wet markets.

He says Customs and Excise Department officers should be arresting these poultry smugglers, but instead much of their time is taken up with efforts to detect pirated DVDs that are being smuggled in.

The department disagrees with Hodgson's assertion.

An official says the department's initiative to stop smuggling, called Operation Eagle, has, since its commencement in October, netted 255,151 kilograms of poultry up to the end of December, and "28 live chickens/birds at the air, land and sea boundary."

From the start of the year through to April 12, a further 22,490 kilograms have been seized, but the customs official did not say where that illegal meat was seized.

Customs officials acknowledge that Sai Kung waters are a "black spot."

One official said: "The department will continue to maintain its vigilance at all black spots, including Sai Kung."

On a foggy early morning in February, a flotilla of fishing boats piloted by women and loaded with chicken meat packed in the mainland crashed into several reefs and islands in the waters surrounding Hong Kong.

Most of the damage was at east Peng Chau and another island, Tat Mun.

In all, six boats either grounded or their cargoes were dumped overboard.

Hodgson said he asked fishermen and nearby villagers to assist in the cleanup, but they then collected the cargo and took it away to store the meat in their freezers.

"Do not eat the chicken feet for a few weeks," Hodgson urges.

"I think they are culling the chickens [in China] and putting them in boxes, saying they're from Belgium, and sending it out."

He wonders: "Why don't they just bring it into Hong Kong? It would have cleared through customs."

They do not bring it into Hong Kong because of fears about avian flu and the government's screening measures. The government says it does everything in its power to control the flow of poultry into Hong Kong, especially in the wake of the avian flu fears in the past year.

But it does not use testing "regularly" to verify whether frozen meat in village markets actually comes from legitimate sources, according to an information officer at the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.

"Officers are deployed [in village wet markets] randomly to check the live chickens, but not to check whether they are smuggled," the information officer says.

She also said it is common practice for inspectors to check receipts of meat sales to vendors if, in certain cases, it is suspected the meat had been brought in illegally.

"According to our inspections, if they cannot show the receipts, we would follow up case by case. Sometimes we would charge them, but first we would seize the meat," the officer says.

The department checks for certificates that verify the chicken had been brought in legally.

Customs officers, of whom 2,500 hunt smugglers, can arrest anyone they deem to be smuggling poultry, says a spokesman for the department.

The government lifted a three month ban on imports of mainland chicken March 26.

The new quota system limits the number of chicken imported to 20,000 per day, about 10,000 less than under the previous quota.

The Health, Welfare and Food Bureau says that "the [new] import ceiling will not cause an increase in smuggling."

But a specialist on respiratory ailments, said that introducing the quota system for chicken shipments does not adequately address the threat of avian flu besides increasing the stakes for smugglers.

It has not yet been established that avian flu can be transmitted when someone touches live or dead poultry infected with the virus, says professor of respiratory medicine Kenneth Tsang at Hong Kong University.

"The way to stop avian flu in the world is to invent vaccines."

Hodgson recommends that the government first find out where the chicken is being shipped from, and in this way someone can search for a solution to ease any fears over chicken meat.

"Get some of the chicken ... and find out where the hell it is actually coming from," Hodgson says.

"What I think is that the government doesn't want to know, so they are not going to do it."

The customs department said it is unaware of any smuggled chicken being found dumped in coastal waters with markings indicating "Belgium" as the point of origin.

It urges those who find any such suspect cargo too report the incident.

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