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The local vets are not only limited in number, there are also questions about their expertise in treating livestock. “Frankly speaking, in Hong Kong, vets only know how to cure dogs and cats, not chickens and pigs,” says 66-year-old animal nutritionist Kwok Ming-cheung. “If it [a chicken] needs treatment, I am the vet.”

Kwok, who has a BSc in agriculture from the University of Alberta, Canada and an MSc in animal nutrition from the University of British Columbia, began rearing chickens in 1988 and helped scientists at the University of Hong Kong to develop the Kamei chicken breed in 1997. He thinks Hong Kong has only three experts with rich field experience in the local livestock industry, including himself.

When avian influenza was found on his farm in 2002, the AFCD destroyed a whole batch of chickens. But Kwok later discovered that the way to prevent the outbreak of disease was to ensure adequate air ventilation. He says that when avian influenza occurred in his farm again in 2003, only those chicken houses without a new air ventilation design were affected.

However, Kwok says the government rarely accepts farmers’ insights and suggestions, making decisions based on their own professionals’ opinions instead. In the Hong Kong system, this often means doctors instead of vets.

Dr Howard Wong Kai-hay, the former chief vet in the AFCD and the present executive director of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the City University of Hong Kong, describes the situation as being “industry outsiders leading the industry insiders.”

Wong explains that in many countries, such as the United States, Britain and China, vets are in charge of food safety at a very high level. This is because many food products are related to the livestock industry, even items such as instant noodles which contain eggs.

Wong says vets have a rich knowledge of food production and feeding processes and so are essential to ensuring food safety. “If you eat sick animals, it’s not good. Which professional looks after sick animals, the vet or the doctor? Of course the vet,” he says.

Yet in Hong Kong, there are only 30 government vets overseeing a wide range of affairs, including food safety, livestock regulation and animal welfare. More importantly, none of them are in the most senior posts which are always occupied by doctors. Wong says this affects food safety and the management of disease outbreaks in local poultry farms. “It makes it difficult to get the right advice at the right time,” he says.