The cause of death of more than 11,000 diseased broiler chickens found dumped in a canal in Kompong Thom province last month has been identified as an infectious virus transmittable to humans, according to the Ministry of Agriculture’s animal health department.
“We have determined that it was Newcastle [disease] that caused the death of these chickens,” said Tum Sotheara, director of the department’s animal research institute, which carried out testing on the dead chickens.
Newcastle disease is highly contagious and often fatal for fowl, but in humans normally manifests as conjunctivitis or mild symptoms of influenza.
While the case is apparently closed on what killed some 11,500 chickens, the question of how they ended up in the canal in the first place, and who is to blame for what could have led to a large-scale public health problem, is still unclear.
The Charoen Pokphand CP Group, Thailand’s largest private company, has been blamed by local authorities as the source of the diseased fowl, which were discovered by residents of Stung Sen City on January 24 in a canal used to irrigate rice farms and provide drinking water for livestock.
“This is the true information. That farm is managed by CPF,” aid Tann Mengchhang, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s animal health office in Stung Sen City, referring to CP’s food division. “That farm is given baby chickens, food and they use CPF health services.”
Stung Sen City governor Hok Rin concurred, adding that CPF not only provided health services, but also purchased chickens back from the tainted farm.
However, CPF has insisted over the past two weeks that it was only being blamed because of how well-known it is in the industry—the company has 749 contracted farms across Cambodia.
“Because we are an agro-industry and we are a big one in that area, and most of the farms belong to CP, we are are also a big dealer. ‘It might be CP’—anyone can say that,” said Poohrich Sinwat, CPF Cambodia’s business development and marketing manager.
“But we have to deny it,” he said.
In interviews over the past two weeks, company representatives have given contradictory answers to questions about how many farms CPF operates in Stung Sen City and their possible links to the man suspected of dumping the birds.
Sit Sim, a local businessman, was named by authorities as the man who was operating the farm where the chickens fell ill, and also as the individual responsible for tossing them into a public canal. Mr. Sim has not been available to comment following his alleged offloading.
During an interview last week, Uthai Tatipimolphan, CPF’s president in Cambodia and Laos, initially said Mr. Sim was simply a laborer and not the owner of the farm. Later, he said he did not know the man or his position.
“We don’t know Mr. Sim, who is he? But we can confirm he is not our laborer,” Mr. Uthai said, adding that there were multiple chicken farms in Stung Sen City—“around five or six”—and only one CPF “contracted” farm, which was not involved in the scandal.
Mr. Uthai explained that if a farm is contracted—meaning CPF sells day-old chicks to a farmer with an agreement to buy back grown chickens—it is subject to rigorous controls. While independent farmers can also purchase CPF chicks and then sell them on the free market, they do not receive the same level of scrutiny, he said.
Mr. Poohrich said there were in fact three CPF contracted farms in Stung Sen City and denied that the company had any ties to the farm that discarded the chickens.
Deciphering exactly how many farms CPF is involved with—through supplying chicks, buying chickens or providing other services—is complicated.
A 2008 study looking at the potential spread of avian flu—commissioned by the British and German governments, along with the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization—analyzed the makeup of the chicken industry in Cambodia and found that in 2004, CP had contracts with about 65 percent of Cambodian chicken broiler farms.
Of the remaining farms, CPF was involved in supplying half of them with chicks and, occasionally, health services. At that time, CPF was essentially supplying chickens to 82 percent of Cambodian chicken broiler farms.
In 2010, a vice president at CPF said that the company planned to continue growing their broiler business in Cambodia and Laos, capitalizing on the fact that many smaller farms had been destroyed by avian flu.
Since the mass dumping, the company has disseminated safe disposal brochures “reminding” farmers in the region about recommended methods like burial and burning, according to a statement from CPF.
Cambodia’s first law covering safe practices for animal farming was passed in December, and it did not cover the disposal of dead animals, so no crime was committed when thousands of diseased chickens were dumped into the canal, officials have said.
However, the issue has raised concerns about potential dangers with Cambodia’s rapidly growing factory-farm industry. And whether due to negligence or renown, the concerns have been directed largely at CPF.
“The animal department officials are discussing this to make some kind of policy with the CP company,” said Mr. Sotheara of the government’s animal research institute.
Mr. Poohrich said the company would comply with any alterations made to the law, adding that the government may be in talks with CPF, but not due to their suspected role in last month’s mess in Stung Sen City.
“We have the best practice in our farms,” Mr. Poohrich said. “So sometimes the government asks us to give them advice for their regulations.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)