Local poultry farmers and shop owners say they are experiencing major drops in sales due to a lack of public awareness on how bird flu is contracted, despite the fact that no cases of the H5N1 virus have been confirmed in the country.
"Sales are down 80 percent at least since news broke of the disease," said Ali Daw, a poultry farmer who sells chicken products in Beirut's Chiyah market. "People are afraid of bird flu, so they’re cutting down on poultry consumption."
Daw added that, while he used to sell up to 50 chickens and about 30 egg cartons per day, he now sells less than half of that. "The money I’m making is barely enough to feed the chickens in my farm," he said. "If things don't get better soon, I’ll have to close the business."
According to Jean Hawa, head of the Poultry Farmers Union and owner of one of the country's biggest chicken farms, the poultry sector had lost some US $30 million as of 15 March. “And the damage is ongoing,” he added.
Hawa explained that the main reason for the losses was the fear of bird flu, despite the fact that the virus cannot be contracted through cooked poultry and that there have been no reported cases in the country so far. Bird flu spreads to humans through contact with infected birds.
"Business is remarkably subdued," Hawa said. "Prices went down severely, and our losses are growing as the disease gets closer to Lebanon." He added that, although poultry farmers have cut production to less than half of capacity, they were still losing money.
Local consumers, meanwhile, say they are not prepared to take risks, despite reassurances: "It won’t kill them to stop eating chicken and eggs for a while, until the danger is gone," said Mariam Haidar, a housewife and mother of three.
In the Middle East, only Iraq and Egypt have declared fatal human cases of avian flu, with two deaths in each country. Neighbouring Israel, meanwhile, has detected evidence of bird flu in thousands of turkeys and chickens, found dead in the south of the country. According to the latest figures published by the World Health Organization (WHO), the H5N1 strain of the disease has killed 105 people since early 2003, mostly in South-East Asia.
According to Hawa, the government had set aside a sum of $800,000 to distribute on poultry breeders who choose to kill their chicken in order to cut down on production as demand is low at present, and thereby balance the prices of poultry products in the market. "If there is less product offered in the market, the prices will rise a little," Hawa said.
"That is why one of the conditions to be able to get the compensation is to dispose of the chicken without selling it after it is killed," he added, and explained that each farmer was getting $1 for every chicken killed.
"These are healthy chickens however, and the only reason we are doing this is to balance prices in the market," he added.
He explained that the union was still holding out for more compensation. "We understand people's fears, but we also assure them that the poultry sector is taking all precautions necessary to avoid the disease,” Hawa emphasised, “and we’ve been successful at this so far."
In a bid to bolster the flagging industry, Minister of Agriculture Talal Sahili assured the public it was safe to consume poultry products. "I eat chicken, and so can everyone, without fear," Sahili said. "We’ve taken pre-emptive measures such as banning hunting, sending inspectors to villages to check on the birds… we have 13 specialised groups taking daily samples of dead birds and other birds to analyse them in specialised laboratories," the minister added.
Sahili went on to say: "We’re taking all precautions. If there’s a case of bird flu, we’ll know instantly and counter it before humans are infected."
Abdel-Salam Weld Ahmad, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation representative in Lebanon, said that the agency was assisting the government in spreading awareness about the virus. "We’re working hand in hand with the Lebanese government and concerned ministries to spread awareness,” Ahmad said. “We’ve provided them with the guidelines being used worldwide to counter the disease."