A farmer stands next to chickens on sale in Fuyang, East China's Anhui Province on February 12. Photo: CFP
Even though spring has already arrived, at least on the basis of the Chinese lunar calendar, the country's poultry industry is still suffering the icy grip of bird flu, with no way of knowing when the freeze will be over.
A large group of poultry workers demonstrated on Monday in front of the provincial government building in South China's Guangdong Province, according to pictures posted online, holding banners with messages such as "Live poultry market closed, poultry farming is killed."
They were protesting against the closure of the live poultry market in Guangzhou for two weeks starting from Saturday.
The General Office of the Guangdong provincial government confirmed with the Global Times on Thursday that there was a poultry workers' protest on Monday.
The market closure came after several local cases of H7N9 virus infections in Guangdong since the beginning of this year.
The recent outbreak of H7N9 bird flu has led to a loss of 10 yuan ($1.6) for each chicken sold and a total loss of 1 billion yuan in Guangdong each month, according to an open letter sent to the State Council on January 22 by 73 poultry farming organizations in Guangdong.
Three bosses of one poultry company have fled without paying scores of local farmers in Kaiping, a small city in Guangdong, the Economic Information Daily reported on Monday.
About 70 local farmers could not recoup their investment as the company failed to repurchase chickens from them according to the contract they had signed.
Based on the contract, the local farmers bought chicks from the company and raised them in order to sell them back to the company later, while the company was responsible for providing chicken feed. Farmers make an average profit of 2 to 3 yuan for each chicken raised.
This business model is popular in Guangdong, which is a major source of poultry production in China. The province produced 1.13 billion poultry products including 700 million chickens in 2012, the year before the first appearance of H7N9 bird flu.
Long Shangfang, a local farmer who purchased 18,000 chicks from the company, saw more than 5,000 of them starve to death as the company stopped providing feed on January 15, and he himself could not afford the feed needed.
"The feed is expensive. We have to borrow money to buy feed," another contracted farmer was quoted as saying.
There are about 10 million people engaged in raising poultry in Guangdong, Chen Yingfeng, president of the Guangdong Poultry Industry Association, was quoted as saying Monday by the Economic Information Daily.
Other parts of China have also been hit by the bird flu crisis.
Local farmers in Dehui, Northeast China's Jilin Province are having to wait longer to send live chickens to the slaughterhouse as it has accumulated too much reserves due to sluggish demand, Nandu Daily reported on Monday.
Often the holiday season is the peak season for meat consumption. However, before the Chinese Lunar New Year, which fell on January 31, the retail price for live chicken was 17.31 yuan per kilogram, down 4.42 percent from a year ago, according to official data.
Chicken transactions in 27 wholesale markets in areas including Beijing, East China's Shandong and Jiangsu provinces had fallen by 8 percent from a year ago, and by 2.7 percent from December, the data showed.
Poultry farming suffered heavy losses from April to August in 2013 due to the appearance of the H7N9 virus, and many poultry farming companies are reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy.
The market began recovering in August in Guangdong, and resumed normal operation in October, but the outbreak of H7N9 returned in December.
"The sales volume of chicks has dropped by two-thirds compared with the level in 2012," Zhou Aiguo, a manager at Guangzhou Fengsheng Poultry Farming Co, told the Global Times on Monday.
After new cases of H7N9 were reported, live poultry trading markets in East China's Hangzhou and Nanjing were closed in late January.
No end in sight
The market is not expected to recover in the next one or two years, Wen Zhifen, president of Guangdong Wens Foodstuffs Co, a major agricultural company in the province, was quoted as saying by Nandu Daily on Monday.
Wens Foodstuffs made a loss of 2.5 billion yuan in 2013 and 500 million yuan in January, Wen said.
The suspension of live poultry trading has made the situation worse, as farmers have no way to sell their goods, Gong Guifen, secretary-general of the poultry branch under China Animal Agriculture Association, told the Global Times on Wednesday.
During the two-week closure of the live poultry market in Guangzhou, chickens still have to be fed. Some poultry farmers have reportedly resorted to borrowing at high interest rates, after being denied access to bank loans as live poultry cannot serve as collateral.
The central government allocated a subsidy of 600 million yuan for the poultry sector in 2013, but it's a small amount compared to the total loss from chicken farming of 120 billion yuan since 2013, Gong said.
"It's been almost a year since H7N9 broke out, and the relevant authorities have no clue about the origin of the virus or its spreading path," Gong said, noting that simply closing the live poultry market is not the right solution.
If taking upstream and downstream businesses into account, the losses resulting from the slumping poultry market since last year could amount to as much as 200 billion yuan, Wang Xiaoyue, an analyst at Beijing Orient Agribusiness Consultant Ltd, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
In the open letter, the poultry industry in Guangdong asked local authorities to stop reporting H7N9 as bird flu and just call it the H7N9 virus instead.
Currently, the World Health Organization and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention continue to name the disease as avian flu.
But Zhang Zhongqiu, director of the Veterinary Bureau of the Ministry of Agriculture, was quoted by the ministry on January 29 as saying that there is no abundant evidence to prove that the H7N9 virus is transmitted to humans from poultry.
As of Tuesday, 347 cases of H7N9 infections had been reported in China since 2013, of which 109 were fatal, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement on Thursday.