CHICKEN lovers are clucking with a collective sigh of relief these days, after Shanghai formally ended its two-month ban on live poultry sales in dozens of wet markets. I commend the city for its rational, even-handed approach, finding a middle road in balancing local taste for live birds with the health threat from the outbreak of H7N9 in April.
Still, now that the crisis has passed I have to wonder if perhaps the city might have been better served by keeping these live bird markets closed permanently. While that might deprive Shanghai of some of its local color, the move would be more in line with the international image the city is trying to cultivate.
The city has made a general pledge to close all the live bird markets eventually, but the timing remains vague.
During the ban, my favorite Cantonese diner and just about all other restaurants took all chicken off the menu during that period, even though there's no evidence that bird flu spreads through eating properly cooked meat. My lone attempt to buy chicken at my local supermarket also failed, as the only poultry on offer was some frozen meat.
In the remaining markets, sales are brisk, though more strictly controlled than in the past. Sales will be suspended during the next bird flu season.
Bird lovers will be happy that the pigeons removed from People's Park during the outbreak have been reintroduced, providing local color and a target for children to chase and feed with food scraps.
Poultry sellers are happy, since sales have rebounded, housewives are happy as well. The city seems content with the balance.
I know many Chinese people believe that freshly killed chicken and fish is tastier and it's certainly fresher than what we get in the West. That said, I do think much of this view is due to conditioning, and I don't usually taste any big difference between a live chicken that's just been killed at the market versus a chilled one I've bought at the grocery store.
Regardless, I do think the recent bird flu outbreak has emphasized that live bird markets may have been necessary in the past to guarantee freshness, but perhaps they need to be retired in the present as part of Shanghai's drive to become a modern, cosmopolitan city.