New Delhi: Amid the novel coronavirus scare, the accompanying rumours concerning chicken consumption, especially on social media, have wreaked havoc in the poultry industry of Uttar Pradesh, which may lead to heavy losses. Thousands of farmers and small meat shopkeepers stare at loss of livelihoods as well.
Poultry owners in the state are being forced to sell chicken at throwaway prices, as demand has plunged with people fearful of contracting the infection, despite no scientific evidence of any connection between coronavirus and chicken consumption.
Several poultry farmers in Bulandshahr, Meerut, Gorakhpur have reportedly buried thousands of chickens alive, spurred by rumours that the birds could spread the contagious disease.
This came a day after the Uttar Pradesh government asked all hatcheries to stop adopting crude methods to kill male chicks.
On the verge of closing down, Hamid Quraishi, who has been running a chicken shop for the past 35 years in Bulandshahr's Khurja area, has six employees currently working for him. But with the coronavirus outbreak on the horizon and rumours spreading like wildfire, he fears he won’t be able to earn enough to pay his employees’ salaries.
“This trade had been hit by rumours swirling on social media that
consumption of chicken and mutton could lead to coronavirus infection. Ever since these rumours started doing the rounds on WhatsApp, the poultry industry has collapsed in Uttar Pradesh. In the retail market, poultry and meat shopowners are struggling to stay in business as sales have plummeted. Chicken prices have come down to Rs 20 per kg from Rs 160 in several districts," he said.
Some poultry owners said that despite the state Animal Husbandry Department's health advisory that clarifies that non-vegetarian food does not cause coronavirus infection, people are so scared that they are not ready to see reason and are instead trusting fake social media posts.
"Poultry industry is facing a tough time in even recovering the cost of rearing poultry," Hamid told NewsClick. He claimed that he had lost almost Rs 5 lakh in the past one month due to rumours surrounding non-vegetarian food and the spread of COVID-19.
According to Ministry of Food Processing Industries, Uttar Pradesh is the largest producer of meat in the country, accounting for 23% of total meat production, followed by West Bengal contributing 12%. As per an official estimate, 10 crore farmers are directly involved in poultry, animal husbandry and fisheries in the country, contributing more than Rs 1.2 lakh crore to the gross domestic product.
Alok Raj, a consultant of Alok's Poultry Technology Pvt Ltd based in Ghaziabad, blamed social media rumours for the poultry business losses.
"To design and set up a poultry unit, it takes more than 25 years and such rumours, that pop-up every two-three years in our country, are leading to collapse of the business. The poultry owners have reduced the price of chicken to Rs 25/kg while the cost of production or maintenance runs beyond Rs 70,” he said, adding that “the day is not too far when the entire meat industry will collapse.”
Abdul Wahid is also having sleepless nights after the coronavirus outbreak. He runs a poultry farm in the outskirt of Bahraich district. He was ready for dispatch of over 4,000 birds for sale in the market, but disinformation and false rumours on social media, especially on WhatsApp groups, has disrupted his business.
“The birds have already grown to their full capacity and will die within a few days if they are not sold, but buyers are not ready to purchase the chicken. If the situation remains the same, I will incur a huge loss and might close this business," Wahid said.
Rumours that coronavirus in humans is spread via contaminated chicken meat have been spiraling, breaking the back of the poultry industry across the country. Uttar Pradesh has seen a drastic dip of 95% in offtake.
“There is no evidence showing that chicken carries coronavirus. This is a rumour. People are scared and are not ready to believe any clarification by the authorities,” Sandeep Khare, a health activist based in Lucknow, told NewsClick.
Sanjeev Prakash, Regional Head of Uttar Pradesh, Indian Agro and Food Industries Limited, said the price of a kilo of chicken had come down to Rs 10 to Rs 20, while the feed needed to increase the weight of the chicken production costs Rs 50 per kg.
"We are completely finished, as we do not even have money to feed the chicken. In 2006, when bird flu hit the country, chicken was sold at Rs 40/kg. The only difference is that chicken prices then never went lower than Rs 40 and that period lasted about two weeks. But this time, we are selling chicken at Rs 8 to 9 wholesale while it costs us about Rs 75."
"During bird flu, there was no WhatsApp, which is solely responsible for our losses this time. People are spreading rumours and laypersons trust these fake pieces of information. We are suffering," he added.
Prakash, who has been in the poultry business since the past 33 years, says he has never seen such devastation of business. "Even Holi, when demand is usually too high, miserably failed to make much of a difference. A day before Holi, the footfall was not even 10%. We were forced to open the market of chicken at Rs 7 per kg. I have never seen chicken at such a low prices in my entire carrier of 33 years," he added.
Union Fisheries, Dairying and Animal Husbandry Minister Giriraj Singh has already clarified that due to rumour-mongering, the industry has estimated about Rs 2,000 crore loss. Prices of chicken have declined by about 70% in just one month to Rs 30 per kg in the wholesale market.
Prakash said the minister had debunked the rumours and had said that eating meat, fish, and egg was completely safe, and had also issued a health advisory that coronavirus had nothing to do with consumption of chicken and mutton, yet people are engaging in rumor-mongering. He claimed that such rumours should be put to an end, as these would not only destroy the poultry business but may also force farmers and small shopkeepers to commit suicide.