Vietnam’s poultry sector has been ravaged by bird flu, but a lull in infections has left producers divided on whether to slow down or forge ahead and revolutionise the industry. Some experts and corporate survivors of the disease that tore through backyard chicken farms here say now is the time to invest in modern integrated operations that promise more safety for workers and consumers.

A shift from family chicken coups to cutting edge factory farms would make both public health and business sense, said Tony Forman, avian influenza technical adviser for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Vietnam. "Groups prepared to invest in biosecure facilities in breeding, animal feed, slaughter houses and food processing may achieve a high level of return on their investment," he told AFP. Since late 2003, Vietnam has been the ground zero of the bird flu crisis. Of the 97 known human deaths worldwide, 42 occurred in the communist country, leading to bans on poultry sales and the slaughter of tens of millions of birds. … But as the disease has spread to Europe and Africa this northern winter, a three-month lull in reported animal outbreaks in Vietnam and four months free of human cases here have raised cautious hopes that the worst may be over.

The guarded optimism comes after the sector took a heavy hit. Aside from the human cost, bird flu took a high toll on the businesses of farmers, butchers and retailers, both small and large. US food giant Cargill has closed a local chicken facility and slowed animal feed production. "We will reconsider getting back into that activity if the market gets better in future," said Truong Chanh, head of Cargill in Vietnam. Animal feed market leader Proconco — a Vietnamese subsidiary of the French group EMC that has actually turned a profit amid the crisis by shifting to feed for pigs and aquaculture — is now torn between doubt and optimism. "Sales started again in January," said Michel Boudrot, general manager of Proconco. "The next months should not be so bad."

But at least one producer, Thai company Charoen Pokphand (CP), has voiced enthusiasm and insists that now is the time to invest heavily. The company, which says it already controls 80 percent of industrial poultry production in Vietnam, plans to double output to a million chicken per week by the end of the year. "CP will succeed in turning a crisis into an opportunity of development," says Sooksunt Jiumjaiswanglerg, president of CP Vietnam Livestock. "We anticipate 30 percent growth of turnover each year," said Sooksunt, adding that the company also plans to open more than 100 new CP Fresh Mart shops this year and 200 to 300 Five Star roast chicken stalls. "That is how high our level of confidence in the future is," he said. The Thai group is the principal supplier of the fast-food chains KFC and Lotteria here, as well as of supermarket chain BigC (Casino), whose poultry sales have actually climbed since last May. "The customers pay great attention to health safety", said Christophe Varvier, food purchasing manager for BigC. He said since the crisis Vietnamese customers "buy more and more chickens processed by industries, cut up and conditioned on their premises, because they are less likely to be contaminated during transport."

In the long term, CP wants to control the entire process, from egging to sales — a drastic shift in a country where birds now tend to be transported on motorbikes before being hand-slaughtered with a hachet on a wooden block. The government will eventually promote the industrialization of the sector, said Patrice Gautier, Vietnam coordinator of Veterinarians Without Borders, with real results likely "perhaps in five or 10 years". But the shift will come at a price, Gautier predicted. "It’s hard to tell what will become of the small breeders," he said. "Will they have to find an alternative way to make money?"

Does bird flu cloud have silver lining for Vietnam’s poultry sector?