In the first week of February, Somnath Shelke, a poultry farmer in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar, started receiving text messages on WhatsApp that baffled him.

“Broiler chicken me korona virus ko paya gaya hai," one of them said. “Tamam logo se appeal ki jati hai ki broiler ke gosht ka istemal na kare..." As proof of the virus in chickens, two images of blind, tattered-looking broiler chickens accompanied these.

Since 2003, Shelke has been running his poultry business alongside his family’s fruit and vegetable farms. He sources 4,000-6,000 chickens from a hatchery, shelters them in long, airy sheds, and fattens them up with high-density maize and corn feed. The chickens are ready to be sold in six-seven weeks. A batch of 5,000 fetches him around 50,000.

For many farmers, the poultry business is a way of earning a steady income, especially when agriculture is so vulnerable to the whims of weather. So when Shelke read the text message, he wasn’t willing to believe it. Only three students from Kerala, who had recently returned to India from China, had been diagnosed with the coronavirus at the time. “My family was afraid that the rumours might affect our business," he says over the phone. “But I said, it will pass. People will see through them."

A vendor unloads chickens from a truck at an empty poultry market in Siliguri.
A vendor unloads chickens from a truck at an empty poultry market in Siliguri. (Photo: Getty Images)

Besides, this was hardly the first time chickens were getting bad press. Much of the Indian poultry industry has been criticized frequently for housing birds in cramped cages, fattening them on feed ridden with highly potent antibiotics, and for the filthy conditions in which they are kept and slaughtered. When bird flu hit Maharashtra in 2006 and West Bengal in 2008, millions across the country gave up meat for weeks, even months. Even during an outbreak of chikungunya in 2016, some associated the mosquito-born disease with chicken due to assumed phonetic similarities and briefly gave up meat.

This time, however, the barrage of WhatsApp forwards warning against poultry consumption only increased. Many posed as guidelines from credible-sounding sources, like the Union health ministry and Unicef, and recommended an assortment of remedies: stay off fizzy drinks, processed foods, animal products, even ice cream. The warnings against diseased chicken became more dire by the day. Pictures and videos of chicken allegedly afflicted by the virus were actively circulated on social media.

Hundreds of thousands of chicken in West Bengal had to be buried during an outbreak of bird flu in 2008. Similar burials have restarted as some farmers seek to get rid of their unsold bird stock.
Hundreds of thousands of chicken in West Bengal had to be buried during an outbreak of bird flu in 2008. Similar burials have restarted as some farmers seek to get rid of their unsold bird stock. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a bid to quell the rumours, the Union health ministry, the animal husbandry ministry and the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) issued statements denying that the virus could be caused by egg or chicken consumption. The Maharashtra government announced it would lodge an FIR against anyone found to be circulating such rumours. But it seemed to make little difference. By the start of March, many farmers across the state were distress-selling their birds for 5- 10 each, nearly 70 less than a few months earlier. The price of eggs, too, dropped from 48 to 24 a dozen. Conversely, mutton sellers in several parts of the country reported a steep hike in demand. The crisis, claims Suresh Chitturi, vice-president of the All India Poultry Breeders Association, was costing the industry 1.6 billion a day.

On 8 March, Shelke removed 3,000 live birds from the shed and loaded them atop a tractor trolley. He drove it to a patch of land next to his farm where an excavator had dug a hole a few feet deep. There, he buried them. “I sprinkled salt over the soil after so it doesn’t smell," he says. It was a decision made out of desperation. There were no takers for his birds. Shelke claims he had already spent nearly 1.5 lakh feeding them over two weeks and couldn’t afford to continue any longer. “I would spend more time with the birds than I did with my wife and kids. Imagine how it felt."

Sales have dropped nearly 80% in parts of the country following the rumours online.
Sales have dropped nearly 80% in parts of the country following the rumours online. (Photo: Getty Images)

In a follow-up interview a few days later, Shelke denies having buried the chickens. “It would be a crime if I did so," he adds uneasily. But his father and poultry supplier separately confirm that he did. “There have been police complaints filed against farmers killing chicken around here, so many are afraid of admitting it," says K.B. Gangavane, a local coordinator with the Pune-based poultry company Shri KY Agrovet Pvt. Ltd—Shelke rears chickens for them. “It’s like, you can’t afford to keep them, nor are you allowed to kill them."

Precaution or paranoia?

Poultry is the most organized of all animal agriculture sectors in India, with leaders like the VH Group (better known as Venky’s), Suguna Foods, Godrej Agrovet and Skylark Foods. Nearly 80% of the eggs and chicken sold in India come from commercial farms. At nearly 80 million, Maharashtra has the third largest poultry population in India. It is where the WhatsApp rumours are believed to have started.

Why did the poultry industry become the victim of misinformation? The reasons, say industry stakeholders , are multipronged. They range from people’s gullibility to fake news on the internet to their distrust in the food safety norms followed by the industry, as well as the cultural taboos associated with meat in India.

But first, was there any degree of truth to the rumours at all? Surprisingly, yes. But only because of the broad nomenclature.

Coronavirus is a group of viruses known to cause respiratory ailments. These include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The ongoing pandemic is of Covid-19, caused by a new type of virus previously not known to medical experts. But many use Covid-19 and coronavirus interchangeably.

According to a paper published by the US National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicines, coronaviruses have long been observed in dogs, cats, poultry and livestock and other animals. The one found commonly in chicken is an “infectious bronchitis virus". Research so far has not established any link between the coronavirus found in chickens and Covid-19 in humans.

“If the name of the virus is the same in both species, it creates panic,"says D.D. Parkale, regional joint commissioner of the Maharashtra state animal husbandry department. “Take influenza, for example. It exists in animals too but is not communicable to humans. Similarly, there is no science to support that coronavirus in chickens is communicable to humans."

On 17 February, Parkale’s department lodged a complaint against rumour-mongers with the Pune police cyber crime cell. Over the following weeks, poultry companies in Hyderabad, Gorakhpur and several parts of Maharashtra held “Chicken Food Festivals", selling kebabs, curries and biryanis at a subsidized price of 30-90. Aimed at promoting consumption and addressing misconceptions, these saw packed halls with thousands of attendees. Only, not enough to stem the slide.

“We saw a similar slowdown during bird flu in 2006 ," says D.H. Kadam, director of Shri KY Agrovet Pvt. Ltd. “But the difference between then and now is that there is WhatsApp." With internet reaching the remotest corners of India, use of social media has increased multifold, as has the spread of fake news.

The current crisis is unprecedented in its scale, adds Kadam. In recent years, the poultry industry has seen a boom of 7-8% per annum. India is now the second largest producer of eggs and fourth largest producer of chicken. Chicken is its most widely consumed meat. In many parts, eggs and chicken are the cheapest source of protein available. Valued at 1 trillion, the poultry industry employs over five million and indirectly supports over 25 million farmers, creating a stock that is largely acceptable to the 70% Indians who admit to being non-vegetarian.

Unlike Brazil and the US, where nearly 80% of meat sold is packaged and processed, the poultry industry in India depends on mostly private butcher shops, known as wet-markets. “It’s because we have a mentality for buying fresh produce," says Kadam. “You select the bird and want it cut for you. Even the meat from the bird served to the customer just before you won’t do."

Workers at a hatchery in Dahanu, Maharashtra, put newborn chicks in a basket to be transported to poultry farms for rearing.
Workers at a hatchery in Dahanu, Maharashtra, put newborn chicks in a basket to be transported to poultry farms for rearing. (Photo: S Kumar/Mint)

But “fresh" doesn’t always translate into clean. There have been frequent breaches of guidelines on animal welfare, food safety and hygiene. This time, even as the FSSAI refuted rumours linking the coronavirus to poultry, it said it would start introducing measures to improve hygiene and sanitation in the meat and fish industry. It admitted, the hygiene standards in the sector at present were “not good".

“Many meat shops in India operate illegally," says Amruta Ubale, senior director of public affairs at Animal Equality India, who has extensively researched the Indian poultry industry. “They lack adequate infrastructure and don’t follow norms for food safety. There are almost never any checks by veterinarians to assess the health of chicken in the live market."

Some have thus turned to packaged and frozen chicken. Perizaad Zorabian, a model-turned-businesswoman whose company Zorabian Chicken sells packaged, frozen and “relatively antibiotic-free" birds, said in a TV interview earlier this month that following the Covid-19 scare, sales of her products were “kind of skyrocketing".

“Even a normal man wants to buy branded chicken because he’s scared," she added.

There are also cultural reasons for people willing to believe rumours against poultry, says Pushpesh Pant, food historian and writer of India: The Cookbook. “In my state of Uttarakhand (and parts of the North-East), chicken is considered a ‘polluted’ meat because it feeds on worms. At temples, it is only sacrificed, not consumed." In the current political climate, where an assertive Hindu right seeks to promote vegetarianism, the Indian meat-eater is often made to suffer “pangs of guilt", he adds. “Any disease that might have a non-vegetarian connect gives the Hindu fringe an excuse to call it a curse of god. First it was visiting the Chinese, now the (meat-eating) Hindus."

Crisis Management

When the poultry industry faced a consumption crisis during the bird-flu outbreak, Venky’s, one of the industry leaders with interests in chicken breeding, feeding and meat processing, launched a series of advertisements featuring actor Sanjay Dutt. In the ad, Dutt could be seen channelling the histrionics of the lovable rogue of Munna Bhai M.B.B.S, reassuring viewers on the quality of the white meat. “Apna chicken foreign ko jaata hai (We export our chicken),"he says.“Firangi sumdi mein kombdi khaata hai (Foreigners eat it on the sly)."

In the weeks following the slowdown in February, many poultry companies countered the social media rumours with fact-checks on the same platforms, circulating e-copies of advisories issued by health authorities, assuring vexed customers that chicken consumption caused no harm. In early March, a delegation of poultry producers met Sunil Kedar, minister of animal husbandry in Maharashtra. “Our working capital is exhausted," says Prasanna Pedgaonkar, general manager at Venky’s, who was part of the visiting delegation. “There’s an urgent need for compensation. We have requested for at least 100 per bird (it costs 140 to raise a bird for six weeks)."

In late February, ministers from the Telangana government ate chicken at a public event to refute rumours that consumption of poultry products can cause Covid-19.
In late February, ministers from the Telangana government ate chicken at a public event to refute rumours that consumption of poultry products can cause Covid-19. (Photo: Twitter @vsrinivasgoud)

There also need to be strong initiatives that send out a message, he adds. “For example, if they incorporate eggs in midday meals in public schools, it tells people that chicken is harmless."

On 16 March, the Pune police cyber cell announced that it had identified two people who had circulated rumours linking chicken to coronavirus on YouTube. One was a commerce student from Uttar Pradesh, another ran a watch-repair shop in Andhra Pradesh. Jayram Paigude, inspector at the cyber cell, says preliminary interrogations do not indicate any mischievous intent. “They did it for the likes," he says, somewhat harried. “Social media ne manus mental jhalae (People have lost their minds due to social media)."

Earlier this week, this reporter visited Crawford Market, the 150-year-old shopping precinct in south Mumbai, that sells everything from groceries to gift items, pets to poultry. Its butcher shops lie tucked away in a remote, dingy corner. A small army of migrant workers runs the operations, culling, cleaning and chilling meat in the open, to be sold immediately or ferried to caterers and restaurants across Mumbai.

According to shop owners, Crawford Market is known to sell 50,000 birds every day. Over the past few weeks, they have barely managed to sell 10,000.

“It’s perhaps because of its easy availability but chicken has always been victimized," says Nisar Qureshi, a poultry trader who runs a wholesale and retail shop, Chick Nook, at the Market. “First it was the steroids, then antibiotics, then lack of hygiene and now coronavirus. There might be a degree of truth to some of it but these WhatsApp forwards are baseless."

In the past few weeks, says Qureshi, most of his 200-plus restaurant clients have cut back on their orders for fresh meat. On the day we met, he claimed to be selling chicken at 40 a kilogram, a third of what he used to earlier. The outbreak of bird flu in parts of Kerala and Karnataka this week has further dimmed prospects. But Qureshi remains positive.

“It’s a humongous industry," he says. “And as my forefathers used to tell me, murgi apna bhav khud bolti hai (a chicken decides its own price)."

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