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Impacts of Bird Flu Outbreak on China's Poultry Meat Supply Chain

04 August 2015

Live bird markets in China are instrumental in the transmission of avian flu between birds and humans, meaning that there may be a need to restructure the poultry supply chain in future to avoid dangerous epidemics.

A recent study by Shahid G. Khokhar and colleagues, published in the Journal of Applied Poultry Research, looked into the distribution channels for poultry meat in China, and how avian influenza threats have affected the supply chain.

The authors looked at outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H7N9 virus, which began spreading to people in 2013. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that this type of disease is of concern because most patients become severely ill.

The virus is also strongly linked to contact with poultry (or environments contaminated by poultry), especially at live bird markets. The WHO says the H7N9 disease does not appear to transmit easily from person to person.

Biosecurity measures are needed to control H7N9 in China, but such procedures are difficult to implement and regulate in the poultry meat supply chain because of the large number of small-scale producers and traders. Thus big changes in the organisation of the poultry meat supply chain may be needed to keep avian influenza under control.

China's poultry industry is based mainly on traditional poultry farms and backyard holdings, however large commercial poultry farms have been an emerging trend in recent times, and help to meet rising consumer chicken meat demands. The industry has grown rapidly, and large farms now have similar production rates to those in the West.

This shift in production methods has been accompanied by a movement by consumers towards greater food safety concerns, which have led more consumers to purchase meat in supermarkets, but live bird markets are still the major outlet for poultry meat in the country. Consumers think recently slaughtered poultry tastes better than cold-stored meat.

The smaller poultry producers which supply most of the live bird markets are not well environmentally controlled, and so have increased risk of bird disease compared with the large commercial producers. Intermediaries and transporters between the producers and the live bird markets also do not generally have good sanitary practices.

In the live bird markets, traders slaughter, pluck, gut and process the poultry as well as selling it. However, traders often do not use protective clothing or other sanitary methods whilst performing these steps.

The Chinese authorities used a strategy of closing down live bird markets temporarily when they were confirmed as being involved with H7N9 infections, and thoroughly cleaning the market, culling birds and appropriately disposing of waste.

The study authors say that 80 per cent of households in Guangzhou reported buying poultry meat from live bird markets at least once a year, and another survey by the Chinese authorities showed that samples from live bird markets were much more likely to be contaminated than samples from slaughterhouses, farms or wild birds habitats. This represents considerable opportunity for the disease to spread to humans.

Considering all these characteristics of the Chinese poultry meat supply chain, the authors recommended implementing guidelines from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) such as rest days when markets can be cleaned, keeping different bird species spearately, cleaning cages and wearing personal protective equipment. This strengthening of biosecurity successfully prevented H7N9 spread in Guangzhou.

There also needs to be more training for live bird market operators and other members of the supply chain to ensure they know how to implement extra biosecurity, as well as better regulation to ensure they keep to the rules.

However, the authors pointed out that such regulation could have economic impacts, potentially meaning that only large-scale poultry producers and traders could survive in the market. They said that further research was needed into the use of better biosecurity measures in China's poultry meat supply chain.

Overall, the study made these three conclusions:

  • "The scope of public-private partnerships aimed at creating awareness about biosecurity measures in LBM should be expanded across China.
  • "Small-scale farmers, wholesalers, and retailers need to be registered with government authorities so that spot checks can implement and regulate biosecurity practices.
  • "Small retailers, with help from the government, can establish isolated slaughtering areas and centrally controlled, cooperative, large-scale slaughtering facilities."

Further Reading

You can view the full report and author list by clicking here.

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