India poultry industry hit by false virus claims

Jalees ANDRABI
Messages warning people to stop eating chicken because of the contagion have been widely shared on social media in India

India's poultry industry is reeling after sales fell nearly 80 percent over false claims that chickens were carriers of the new coronavirus and could pass it to humans, officials said Friday.

Messages warning people to stop eating chicken because of the contagion have been widely shared on social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, in recent weeks.

While Indian authorities have repeatedly said there was no scientific evidence showing chickens could carry or transmit COVID-19, many Indians and restaurants have stopped buying the meat.

"People are not eating poultry at home. They are not going out to eat," Gulrez Alam, secretary of the All India Poultry Breeders Association, told AFP.

"Sales are down by 80 percent (since January). There is no demand."

India has reported 31 cases of the virus that has killed more than 3,300 people and infected nearly 100,000 worldwide after it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

Alam said small and medium-sized farmers have been hardest hit as the $14-billion industry struggles to correct the misinformation online.

AFP's FactCheck service debunked one of the claims -- shared thousands of times on different platforms -- that said coronavirus has been discovered in broiler chickens in Mumbai.

The post used photos that reverse image searches showed were taken from earlier online reports about other diseases that affect chickens, AFP FactCheck discovered.

Nearly $1 billion in sales of birds and meat have been lost, Alam said citing initial industry estimates, and there are fears the situation could worsen.

The production cost per bird is about $1.90, but millions of farmers are fetching 14 cents in the wholesale market.

"Even hotels we usually supplied meat to have stopped ordering in bulk as there is no demand," said Ramzan Khan, a chicken retailer in Mumbai, who is considering shutting his business temporarily.

"We would sell 250 to 300 chickens every day but now it has trickled down to 50 or on a very good day 100," Khan told AFP.

Delhi butcher shop owner Arvind Das said his takings were down as much as 75 percent.

"People misuse social media a lot these days," Das said.

"Those who are sensible, they are still eating meat, but those who are afraid are avoiding it."