As Asian countries battle the bird flu outbreak, Thailand, the largest poultry exporter in the region, is trying to convince its citizens that chicken is safe to eat. Recently, thousands of Thais flocked to a Bangkok park to visit booths giving away chicken and eggs.
Braving intermittent rain, thousands of people recently descended on Bangkok's Sanam Luang park to get their share of nearly two hundred tons of chicken and ten million boiled eggs being given away.
Chicken producers and fast-food operators packed more than 50,000 boxes of grilled and fried chicken for the crowd. Local performers lined up to sing in a free concert and organizers placed 10,000 eggs into what they claimed was the world's largest pot of khai palo, a Thai stew of eggs, herbs, and pork.
The Thai government threw the party to convince people that chicken is safe to eat, despite the outbreak of bird flu that has devastated the nation's large poultry industry. Dozens of countries have banned imports of poultry from infected countries, and many people are afraid to eat chicken.
Sarawong Chukstawong, a worker from Saha Farms, a major poultry producer, says she does not understand why people are afraid to eat chicken and eggs. "I don't think the disease can affect me because at Saha Farm we sell good quality chickens," she says. "That's the main purpose to give away chicken for everybody who comes and to show that the chicken is safe and good to eat."
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, facing criticism at home and abroad for his handling of the bird flu outbreak, joined the party to cook his special dish - chicken in green curry - for the amused audience.
Some people were reassured by the campaign. Jeriporn Samanung is one of them. "The government explained about everything … then I not worry. I believe in my prime minister, you understand."
Officials say it too early to tell if the outbreak of avian flu has hurt Southeast Asia's lucrative tourism industry. Peter Carsten, from Munich, Germany, says he and his wife considered the outbreak before coming to Thailand on vacation. "We were thinking if we traveled to Thailand about that but we decided to go here," he says. "Maybe we avoid eating chicken a little." Siska van Helton from Belgium thinks the government should focus on wiping out the disease rather than promoting eating chicken. She worries that it is unsafe to eat poultry while the outbreak continues. "I think it's very strange," she says. "I see chicken everywhere and I think it's a bit perverse to promote chicken, I don't know, it's very strange."
Massoud Jenjua, a chicken farmer from Canada's Ontario Province, says he chose to vacation in Thailand in part to support the Thai farmers who have lost their livelihood. Tens of millions of birds in the country and elsewhere in Asia have been killed to stop the spread of the flu. "I certainly feel for the plight of the farmers here, so I came to support them," he says. "Once something breaks out, even a little turkey that's contaminated, the industry just dies."
Mr. Thaksin says the virus is under control in the country, but the World Health Organization spokesman in Thailand, John Rainford, cautions it is too soon to say. "We're very cautious about whether or not those kinds of statements are appropriate because we are dealing with an unprecedented situation in terms of the number of outbreaks in the region," he says. " We're preparing for a long battle, that's for sure.
Bird flu viruses have been found in at least 10 Asian countries and one U.S. state in the past few months. Most areas, including Thailand, are infected with the virulent H5N1 strain, which is deadly to birds, and can infect humans. More than a dozen people in Thailand and Vietnam have died after contracting H5N1 from infected chickens.