Wu Liangui left Shanghai’s Xiao Shaoxing restaurant with a delicacy his daughter wants him to avoid. Inside a plastic box were slices of white-cut chicken, traditionally served rare so that blood seeps from the bones.
“My daughter says I am committing suicide,” the gray-haired 65-year-old said. “But I really enjoy a dinner of chicken and rice wine and I won’t be giving it up easily.”
Wu was one of a few customers still buying Xiao Shaoxing’s specialty after the H7N9 strain of bird flu killed 13 people in China, including nine in Shanghai. Sales of white-cut chicken at the seven-decade old eatery have dropped to about 100 servings a day from as many as 600 before the outbreak, according to deputy General Manager Chen Zhiqiang, who said that in his 30 years at the restaurant he’s never seen demand fall as much.
“I fully understand,” Chen said. “I wouldn’t dare eat chicken either if I didn’t work here.”
Chinese authorities are struggling to balance the need to alert the public to the dangers of bird flu and quell undue panic. Poultry markets in regions with infections have been closed, birds have been culled and more than 10 people have been detained for spreading rumors about H7N9.
“Although we do not know too much yet about this virus, we do know that it is a low pathogenic virus for poultry, which means that it replicates in the gut but is unlikely present in the blood,” Albert Osterhaus, a virologist who studies flu at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said by e-mail.
The H7N9 strain of bird flu has infected 61 people in China, almost all of them in the eastern provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui and the municipality of Shanghai. At least five of those infected worked with live poultry or in kitchen restaurants. Another three were farmers. There has been no evidence of human-to-human infection, according to the World Health Organization.
China passed the U.S. last year to become the world’s biggest consumer of chicken as growing wealth fueled a more than tripling of demand and production over two decades.
White-cut chicken is popular in southern and eastern China. One way of preparing the dish is by bringing a pot of water or stock to boil, placing a whole chicken into the pot, then turning off the flame and allowing the meat to cook in the residual heat. This leaves the meat tender, moist and rare. At Xiao Shaoxing, the poultry is cooked for 30 minutes, according to Chen, the deputy general manager.
The WHO advises all poultry and meat products be thoroughly cooked to at least 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit), “so there’s no red meat that remains,” spokesman Gregory Hartl said at an April 9 briefing in Geneva.
About 19 percent of the 1,500 deaths from food-related illnesses in the U.S. between 1998 and 2008 were attributed to poultry, making it the most lethal among 17 commodities tracked, according to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last month. Those who died eating poultry mainly suffered from gastrointestinal infections caused by Listeria, Salmonella and other bacteria.
While germs can be easily destroyed by several minutes of exposure to heat, it’s still not “sensible” to eat half-cooked chicken that contains blood, said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary University of London.
In 2005, two people in Vietnam may have been infected by the H5N1 strain of bird flu after eating uncooked duck blood, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Duck-blood soup is a popular dish in Vietnam as well as parts of China.
The CDC is recommending that travelers to the region avoid eating undercooked poultry, said Marc-Alain Widdowson, head of the international epidemiology and research team in the influenza division at the Atlanta-based agency. “It’s risky behavior, not only for avian flu, but other pathogens as well,” he said.
Chicken meat consumption has “drastically declined” in eastern China since the outbreak of bird flu, Liu Yonghao, chairman of New Hope Liuhe Co., the country’s biggest poultry supplier, said on April 9.
Yum! Brands Inc., which has more than 5,200 stores in China, said on April 10 that the publicity associated with the virus has had a “significant, negative impact” on sales at its KFC dining chain.
In Shanghai, where more than 111,000 birds have been culled since the start of the outbreak, authorities have shut down live poultry trading at 196 markets and businesses, and carried out inspections of eateries in a bid to allay fears of a spread in the virus.
That hasn’t helped Chongqing Chicken Hotpot, a restaurant in downtown Shanghai that serves the popular Chinese dish. Sales of chicken have dropped to about 5 kilograms a day from a daily average of 100 kilograms before the outbreak, according to its proprietor, who only wanted to be known as Li.
One block away at Xiao Shaoxing, which has served luminaries including former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Olympic medal-winning gymnast Li Ning, Wu was heading home to have the restaurant’s white-cut chicken for his dinner.
“I have been eating Xiao Shaoxing’s chicken for more than 50 years and I have never been poisoned,” the retiree said.