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In India, fear of avian flu knocks chicken off the menu

NEW DELHI—The regulars still hover in the alley outside Khan Chacha Kabab Corner at lunchtime, but there's one thing they're no longer eating: chicken.

The hole-in-the-wall New Delhi institution knocked poultry off its 11-item menu last weekend, just after India reported its first cases of avian flu.

Indian government officials have stressed that avian flu can't be passed to people by eating cooked poultry—they even ate fried chicken at a news conference earlier this week—but their efforts have done little to reassure panicked consumers. Chicken consumption has plunged in the land of tandoori chicken.

"People are scared," said Deepa Sridher, the marketing manager for Yo! China, a chain of Chinese fast-food restaurants. "They don't know what to expect and what to do."

Yo! China has taken chicken wings off its menu and replaced egg noodles with eggless ones. Two major airlines, including state-owned Indian Airlines, have stopped serving chicken and eggs, as has state-run Indian Railways. Even the cafeteria at the Indian Parliament has given chicken the boot.

This is in a nation where meat-eaters have limited options already; beef and pork are rarely served out of respect for Hindu and Muslim traditions.

The fallout demonstrates how quickly misunderstanding can lead to panic when people are confronted with a little-known and sometimes fatal disease. Bird flu, which has devastated poultry flocks in Asia and Africa, has infected 170 people worldwide, nearly all of whom worked with or came in contact with sick birds. While 92 have died, no one is thought to have gotten sick from eating cooked poultry.

Indian officials have confirmed no human cases of the illness, though tests were being run on about a dozen people with flu-like symptoms in Maharashtra state, where a single outbreak was reported Saturday on a farm near the rural town of Navapur. Hundreds of thousands of birds have been killed to prevent the virus' spread.

But that has done little to ease concern in New Delhi, even though Navapur is 600 miles south.

Chicken consumption is down a third at the Moti Mahal chain of restaurants, managing director Monish Gujral said. His grandfather is credited with inventing tandoori chicken—baked in a clay oven—in the 1920s.

At the sprawling Ghazipur market on the eastern border of Delhi, the wholesale price of chicken has fallen by half. Chicken dealer Mohammad Nadeen picked up 700 live chickens Wednesday for 17 rupees a kilogram (about 18 cents a pound), down from 40 rupees before the outbreak.

That's bad news both for farmers and wholesalers. "This is wrong," said a frustrated wholesaler, Jameel Ahmed Kureshi. "We are human. We have hearts. If there were bird flu, why would we sell this?"

Ajay Vohra, 32, an architect in Delhi, is playing it safe. He had lamb, and his wife, fish, when they dined out Tuesday night.

"We're quite conscious of it," he said before polishing off a lamb kebab wrap at Khan Chacha. "We're trying to avoid it until it comes to some conclusion one way or another."

Another customer, Sudhir Chandra, also has given up chicken. "Prevention is always better than the cure," he quipped.

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(Moritsugu is a Knight Ridder special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AVIANFLU

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