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Bird Flu in Asia Alters Eating Habits, Does Little Economic Damage


Bird flu has been decimating poultry populations throughout Asia since 2003, cutting farmers' incomes and scaring consumers into abandoning traditional chicken dishes. But despite fears of significant financial losses, the disease has so far had only a modest economic impact on the region.

Throughout Asia, there are thousands of markets, like this one in Hong Kong, where live chickens and ducks are sold directly to customers. And millions of Asian households raise chickens mainly for their own consumption. Chickens and eggs are not only important ingredients of traditional meals in Asia, but also are vital - and cheap - sources of protein.

But with the H5N1 influenza virus infecting millions of birds, and forcing governments to cull millions more, the region's eating habits are changing, a least temporarily.

Aid workers say the effect is most troubling for the region's poor. Carol Sherman is director of the aid organization CARE in Vietnam and works with poor rural communities.

"It's really presented quite a large problem in the sense of the actual intake of food. Consumption has decreased," said Sherman. "We have sadly been finding out that the food intake among the poorest has gone down. It's a very traditional meat meal - chicken. Everyone has chicken, so they did have to make a swap."

Sherman says that people who can afford it have switched to fish and pork - but others just eat less protein. As poultry prices have fallen because of fears of bird flu, pork prices in Vietnam have risen about 15 percent.

Fear of the disease has also changed the eating habits of many Indonesians - at least of those who have the means to change. Hartono is chairman of the Indonesian Association of Poultry Farmers.

"The high-income people, medium-up, this segment has decreased the demand of poultry products," said Hartono. "They change to the other source of protein like pork for non-Muslims, for the Muslim people they change to the cow, goat, something like that, also change to seafood. The middle-down people, those who have low income they still use eggs as a source of protein."

The H5N1 avian flu virus, which appeared originally in southern China, has now spread to Europe and Africa. The disease is deadly to birds, but the biggest concern is the danger to humans. More than 170 people have been infected with H5N1 and 90 have died of it since 2003, most of them in Southeast Asia and China.

Almost all the human victims caught the disease from sick birds, but health experts fear that if the virus changes to spread more easily among people, it could cause a deadly pandemic.

For farmers whose income comes mainly from poultry, avian influenza has been devastating. Even when they receive government compensation for culled birds and can buy new flocks, they are often unable to recover their losses, because prices for poultry and eggs have gone down.

But traditional diversified farming has saved many of the poorest farmers in Asia because they do not rely exclusively on poultry.

Andy Rothman, an analyst who studies China for investment bank C.L.S.A., believes this has softened the damage to the country.

"This is a huge population - there are 50 million farms in China that each raise 100 or fewer broiler chickens but these are people that are also probably raising some pigs or growing some fruits and vegetables," said Rothman. "So they'll get hit but it won't be a crushing blow to them economically."

Rothman says medium-sized farms that depend almost exclusively on poultry will suffer the greatest losses from avian flu. He says most of China's outbreaks have occurred at mid-sized or small farms because their chickens are exposed to wild birds and the farmers cannot afford preventative measures, such as vaccines.

Rothman believes that large commercial producers in China will not be hit as hard since they have the funds to protect their flocks.

Rothman also points out that although China raises about a quarter of the world's chickens and 65 percent of its ducks, poultry farming makes only a small contribution to the overall economy.

Other economists also think that unless bird flu becomes infectious among humans, its damage to Asian economies will be limited.

Nancy Morgan is a commodity specialist at the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. She says the outlook for the poultry business this year is already better, as consumption of poultry in Asia has recovered after falling in 2004.

"We were expecting a slight increase in Asia because the markets in Thailand are recovering, in China they are recovering as consumers are less concerned," said Morgan. "We are looking at consumption in Asia of about 29 million tons."

Morgan says that although the recovery has been slight, it should strengthen as more people get better information and realize they cannot get sick from meat that has been well cooked.

As Asian nations struggle to defeat bird flu, some have realized that well-publicized poultry vaccination operations and effective public information campaigns are key to boosting consumer confidence - and putting chicken back on the menu.