January 31, 2004 (STAR) By Sheila Crisostomo - It won’t give you bird flu and it’s good to eat.

Health Secretary Manuel Dayrit, Jean Marc Olivé, World Health Organization (WHO) representative in the Philippines, and Victor Atienza, assistant director of the Bureau of Animal Industry, feasted on chicken yesterday to reassure the public that the Philippines is free from bird flu.

The officials ate chicken with their hands at an outlet of Kenny Rogers, an American restaurant chain.

The company said all its chicken products come from the Philippines.

Before television cameras, Dayrit, Olivé and Atienza hosted a chicken lunch yesterday for government officials and reporters to show that it’s safe to eat cooked chicken.

"This is our way of telling the people that it is safe to eat chicken. Chickens in the country are not afflicted with avial influenza and are, therefore, safet to eat," Dayrit said.

He said there has been they have received reports that there has been a 30-percent drop in chicken sale in many fastfood outlets in the country since the bird flu scare started.

Olivé had testified before the Senate that the Philippines is free of bird flu disease, which has spread through 10 countries in Asia, with human transmissions in Vietnam and Thailand.

"In the Philippines, for the moment, there is no alarm at all," said Olivé. "And as we are demonstrating here, it’s extremely safe to eat chicken."

The virus has killed eight people in Vietnam and two in Thailand.

While Dayrit, Olivé and Atienza were feasting on roasted chicken with gravy and all the sidings, Customs agents seized seven refrigerated vans containing smuggled chicken leg quarters during a raid on a warehouse and from two trucks stopped at a police checkpoint, both in Taguig.

Police believe the five vans found in an abandoned warehouse in Taguig were the last of the 19 misdeclared shipment taken out of the Port of Batangas last Friday.

Six vans were stopped by Customs agents as they were being brought out of the Port of Batangas on that day.

On Saturday last week, six more vans were found in Navotas by Customs agents, but they had already been emptied of their contents.

Customs Commissioner Antonio Bernardo has ordered the investigation of Hammerson Development Corp., owner of the warehouse where six of the vans were found, and the transport service which owns the two trucks carrying the two other containers.

When stopped at a police checkpoint, the drivers of the two trucks said they had instructions to deliver their cargo to the Mekeni Food Co. in Pampanga.

Drivers Antonio Lopez and Odelon Soreda presented to police sales receipts indicating that the vans contained "fresh goods."

However, police found frozen chicken leg quarters when they opened and inspected the vans.

Senior Inspector Eufronio Obong of the Taguig police said they set up the checkpoint following a tip from Customs intelligence officer Victor Asuncion that two vans containing smuggled goods had been spotted in Taguig.

"After we intercepted the two vans, we proceeded to the area where they reportedly came from," he said. "Then we discovered five more vans full of chicken (meat)."

The contents of the seven refrigerated vans were taken to the FTI central cold storage in Taguig for safekeeping.

The seven container vans were part of the misdeclared shipment of chicken leg quarters which were released from the Port of Batangas last Friday.

Fernandino Tuason, Port of Batangas officer-in-charge, said when he and a team led by Bernardo entered the warehouse owned by Hammerson Development Corp., they noticed that the five vans were being repainted to avoid detection.

"When we opened them on instructions of the commissioner, they yielded the same shipment of chicken leg quarters," he said.

Customs authorities are zeroing in on the identities of the people behind the "theft" of the contents of six refrigerated vans earlier found in Navotas.

The vans were emptied hours after the shipment was released from the Port of Batangas.

The 19 vans of chicken leg quarters came from Canada and packed in the United States, and later shipped to Taiwan, one of the Asian countries infected with the bird flu disease.

After transit in Taiwan, the chicken was shipped and unloaded at the Port of Batangas.

Criminal and administrative charges have been filed against the Customs officials and employees who were allegedly involved in the release of the illegal shipment.

Facing criminal charges are Aguinaldo Marquez, chief of the assessment division; Ligaya Platon, Oscar Balienta and Luisa Castillo, examiners and appraisers at the Port of Batangas; and Rolando Laderas and his wife, Raquel, owners of Vonway Trading, the shipment’s consignee; and their broker Ivy Sarad.

Administrative charges were filed against Customs officials Ofelia Suena, Oscar Boongaling, Epitacio Punzalan, Vic Arthur Limbacom, Rolando Roque, and Luisa Castillo.

Meanwhile, Swift Foods Inc. has announced that it is initiating moves to export chicken to Japan, which imports chicken from China and Thailand.

Japan has banned chicken importation from these countries.

Swift has a modern facility in Misamis Oriental with the capability of processing 100,000 chickens daily. — With reports from Rey Arquiza, Edu Punay

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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