Rising health concerns over China's 'instant chickens'

BEIJING - Sun Xin never cooks. Her heavy workload means she always eats out or orders takeout, and the 25-year-old IT engineer in Zhongguancun, Beijing, has been a loyal consumer of KFC products since her student days.

Convenience and 24-hour opening are two of the reasons for her loyalty, but more important, she said she had always trusted the multinational brand, believing that it is able to guarantee the safety of its food.

When she can't think of what she wants to eat, Sun will automatically dial the KFC takeout hotline.

However, recently she has called the hotline a number of times, but has hung up before the call was answered. She hasn't eaten the company's products for days.

Zhang Xiufang, a native of Shanxi province who has been selling chickens and related produce at Yuandadu Tianlihong market in Beijing's Chaoyang district for many years, said that sales have recently suffered a sharp downturn.

"Generally, the New Year holiday and weekend are peak seasons for us, but the situation has changed. Half the meat I prepared to sell each day remains in storage. Customers would rather spend 10 yuan (S$1.97) more per kilogram to buy free-range chicken," said Zhang anxiously.

In Nanshan Wholesale Poultry Market, the largest in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, sales of broiler chickens have dropped like a stone recently, while sales of free-range birds have risen sharply. With a daily sales volume of 60,000, free-range chickens account for more than 70 percent of the daily total.

The change has occurred following recent media reports of high levels of antibiotics and illegal growth hormones in "Instant Chickens" at some farms in the provinces of Shanxi and Shandong, the main production areas.

Instant Chicken is the nickname given to birds that grow rapidly, from chicks to ready-to-eat meat in just 45 days.

On Dec 18, China Central Television reported that some poultry farmers in Shandong had given their chickens excessive amounts of antibiotics to help them survive in overcrowded coops. The report claimed international corporations such as KFC and McDonalds were supplied by these farms.

China chicken scare adds to long list of scandals

The owner of a farm in Gaomi, Shandong, told CCTV that the chickens are constantly given high doses of antibiotics because cutting off the flow would result in immediate death and loss of profits.

Statements from KFC and McDonalds stressed that chicken used in their outlets conforms to the current safety standards and that food safety is one of their primary concerns.

While the fast food companies have come under the media spotlight, shares in poultry companies have tanked since the reports and a large number of chicken farms in Shandong and Shanxi have been ordered to halt production while the Ministry of Agriculture conducts investigations.

The ministry has pledged that the results will be released when the investigations have been completed and that checks on poultry farms will be upgraded, especially those for excessive use of antibiotics.

The impact of the allegations has been great for a number of reasons: First, because chicken is a staple of Chinese dining tables; and second, because it appears to be yet another in a series of food safety scares that have battered the confidence of Chinese consumers in recent years.


China chicken scare adds to long list of scandals

The problem of food safety is a hot topic in China. The list of recent scares is long, ranging from milk contaminated with melamine, to pork containing high amounts of illegally added thin carnosine; fake salty duck eggs, where food colorants had been added to produce red yolks; illegally recycled cooking oil; and vegetables with residual levels of pesticides well above the legal limits.

"It is one of the most popular topics under discussion currently. Actually, I have no idea how long it takes for chickens to be ready for slaughter, but 45 days is still short enough to scare me away from not only KFC, but also all food containing chicken," said Sun.

"My mother always warned me that if I want to have healthy children, I should stay away from fast foods," she said. The topic has added resonance for Sun because she got engaged in November and is planning to marry in March.

The deputy director of a large chicken farm in Henan province, who would only give his surname as Yao, said sales at his farm have seen a "notable" decline in the weeks following the reports.



However, he remained upbeat. "People read too much into these cases, but they have pronounced a death sentence on other companies in the industry as well," he complained.

Yao refused to confirm or deny whether China's chicken farms regularly use excessive amounts of antibiotics, for fear of inflaming the situation. He would only say that the industry is undergoing a process of increased regulation and that abuse is definitely not common on a national scale.

He admitted that his farm does use antibiotics, but insisted that the levels are well within the national guidelines. He also emphatically denied that his company uses growth hormones in chicken feed.

According to Yao, the most prevalent strain of chicken produced and sold in the Chinese market is the same as in Western countries. When this strain was introduced to China from the United States in the 1980s, the birds took approximately 60 days to grow to a weight of two kilograms.

"Scientific research has helped shorten the growth period, which can now be as low as 40 days," said Yao.

"The improvement has resulted in a sharp increase in the food supply, not only in China but also in other countries. Foreigners eat the same kind of chicken as we do - it is rich in protein and the birds consume less feed than pigs or cattle."

Zhang Gaiping, an academician at the China Academy of Engineering and an experienced researcher into the rapid detection of epidemics in animals, said the acceleration in the growth rate is one of the benefits of technological advancement.

"Would the rapid production of table-ready chicken be impossible if we didn't use some drugs to make them grow? The nickname "instant chicken" reflects a consumer panic about food safety.

If the growth process is strictly supervised and the chickens are produced without the addition of substances that are against the regulations, consumers can feel easy about consuming them. It won't harm people's health because the chicken's growth cycle is short," said Zhang, quoted by the China Science Daily.

Inside track from a former farmer 

China chicken scare: Inside track from a former farmer 

First person account from Zhao Zhili, 48, president of a small English training school

Unlike most people who have suddenly become uneasy after hearing about "instant chicken", I feel quite unperturbed because I spent more than 10 years raising chickens.

My husband thinks that 40-something days from chick to ready-to-eat is beyond belief, but the growth cycle for chickens was around 60 days when I ran a farm in the 1990s.

My major in my university days was animal-epidemic testing, and I was assigned to work as a technician at the largest chicken farm in Jilin, Jilin province, when I graduated in 1988.

A few years later, when State-owned enterprises were being reformed, I became the director of a new, private chicken farm.

The "fast-growing" breed was introduced from the United States and following their feeding instructions we produced three different kinds of feed, according to the chickens' nutritional and growth requirements - for the first 10 days, the feed provided straight nutrition, then for the next 10 days, it was designed to promote bone growth. After that it was all about increasing the amount of muscle.

The standards are strict in terms of sanitation, environment and chicken density. However, a shortage of capital and the need to lower costs mean it's hard to meet the requirements.

Without enough space to move, the chickens are vulnerable to sickness, so the necessary drugs are used to treat the birds.

Because I studied animal epidemics, I paid great attention to sanitation. Luckily, I didn't encounter any epidemics.

We ate chickens raised on our farm ourselves, and when the holidays arrived, the chickens were also given to the staff.

My opinion on "instant chicken" is this: As long as the antibiotics used are within the national standards, safety can be guaranteed and people have no need to be panic.

Antibiotics: friend or foe?

Antibiotics have been used on poultry since the 1940s to prevent and treat diseases, although some experts contend that this poses risks to humans as bacterial strains can develop stronger resistance to the drugs.

While one of the positive side effects is that antibiotics can promote growth, the downside is that they can lead to serious problems, including damage to internal organs and disorders associated with resistance to disease.

China News Agency recently reported that the country produces roughly 210,000 tons of antibiotics annually, with nearly 50 percent used on poultry and in aquaculture.

Several years ago, the US Congress rejected a proposed bill to make the use of antibiotics in animal feed legal only for therapeutic use. The rejection was based on scientific claims that slaughtered chickens may harbour pathogenic bacteria, which can be passed on to humans.

In October 2000, the US Food and Drug Administration discovered that two antibiotics were no longer effective in treating diseases found in factory-farmed chickens and both were subsequently pulled from the market.

To prevent any residue in chicken flesh, birds that have given antibiotics are required to be withdrawn from the production process for a specified period before they can be slaughtered.