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The devastating poultry disease may be making a comeback, but don't tell that to the Chinese.
BEIJING – China is dealing with a fast reemergence of bird flu among its people — but if crowds at the country’s biggest restaurant chain are any indication, fear of the virus doesn’t seem to be changing its eating habits.
“I trust the Chinese government,” said 21-year-old Hou Jue, as she and her friends tucked into their dinners at a KFC in central Beijing.
Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken — the Louisville, Ky. chicken hawker — has localized to Chinese tastes and built itself into the nation’s largest restaurant chain. A division of Yum! Brands — a $10 billion company that also owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — KFC now boasts more than 2,300 restaurants in mainland China, across 500 cities.
With growth like that the stakes, clearly, are high for the company.
But while a quickly mounting bird flu problem this winter has moved onto consumers’ radar screens, most Chinese are moving along with business and meals — at KFC and elsewhere — almost as usual.
Some have scaled back chicken consumption, but KFC seems as popular as ever, packing in customers for lunch and dinner. A few customers say they order things other than chicken, but they say they trust the chain’s quality standards and are not particularly worried about the bird flu’s 2009 comeback.
Li Xiaolu, 22, said she eats at KFC several times a month but has been steering clear of chicken dishes because she’s “a little worried about bird flu.”
That worry is for good reason. There were eight human cases of bird flu reported in January and five of the victims died, the Chinese Ministry of Health says. That is the most cases in a single month since the H5N1 virus was first identified in humans in 2003, according to the World Health Organization.
Public health officials say the main concern with bird flu at this stage is for farmers and others who have direct contact with fowl, and who therefore can be exposed to the virus when they handle or kill birds. Consumers need to be vigilant about making sure their poultry is well-cooked, as high temperatures kill the virus.
There are growing concerns from Hong Kong that an epidemic may be afoot in China, with the discovery of dead birds, possibly from the mainland, testing positive for the virus. Though some are skeptical, the Chinese government says it has found no problems in the domestic poultry population.
“There is no epidemic outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza in the seven provinces where the human bird flu cases were identified,” the Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement carried in the China Daily newspaper this week.
James Rice is an American who has spent more than two decades in China and leads country operations for Tyson Foods, Inc.
He believes the government learned its lesson with the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic about hiding critical information on outbreaks. Rice, who is building Tyson’s first chicken farm in China (the company is focused here on importing meat from the United States), said the Chinese government has been vigilant about testing poultry producers daily for H5N1.
“That circle of people I know hasn’t encountered bird flu,” he said of China’s big bird farms.
Despite growing case numbers and concerns over the flu’s prevalence, chicken remains firmly on China’s menu. Rice said consumption dropped 30 percent in 2005 when the bird flu struck hard, but this year there has been no impact at all on poultry meat sales.
In 2005, demand fell, then “after about three months, consumption went back up and it’s been the same ever since,” said Rice. “It’s a psychological thing; it’s not scientific.”
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