The Impact of Wet Markets on Public Health and Consumer Behavior
In an effort to combat the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus strain, China has taken rigorous measures to halt the trading and consumption of wildlife animals. This ban includes all wild animals, both those protected under the Wild Animal Protection Law and other related laws, as well as captive-bred wildlife. The ban took effect on February 24 and is expected to impact a market worth 520 billion Chinese yuan (equivalent to 74 billion USD), affecting over 14 million workers.
Besides being used for industrial purposes such as fur and leather, wild animals have been publicly traded as food in many wet markets across China. These markets themselves have become a significant issue.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 75% of past disease outbreaks have originated from animals. While there are still debates about the exact origins of the Covid-19 outbreak, research has shown that it is closely related to a seafood market in Wuhan. Among the first 41 confirmed cases, 27 had visited this market.
China previously ordered the closure of its wet markets in 2003 following the SARS outbreak, transitioning to supermarket and grocery store models seen in Western countries. However, these efforts have not been successful in the past 17 years.
Closing these markets is an incredibly challenging task for China, as they have entrenched themselves into the country’s economy, agricultural production, and even land distribution policies.
In this context, the ban on trading and consuming wild animals is seen by experts as a reasonable but equally resolute solution that requires significant sacrifices.
The Nature of Wet Markets and Their Role in Disease Transmission
When the Covid-19 outbreak started in December last year in Hubei province, China, experts quickly narrowed down the source of the virus. The initial investigation of the first 41 patients in Wuhan revealed that 27 of them had visited a specific location before the onset of symptoms. This location was the Huanan Seafood Market.
Described as an area with over 1,000 stalls, the Huanan Seafood Market not only sold seafood but also live poultry, rabbits, wild animals, and even slaughtered animals.
When looking at such a market, epidemiologists see it as a massive virus reservoir, with zoonotic viruses which can jump from animals to humans, known as zoonoses. In a small space with high densities of animals and humans, viruses can find a path to jump into our bodies, evolve, and spread.
Cross-species transmission occurs at a very low frequency, but when it does happen, it can lead to disastrous consequences. There are around 1.67 million zoonotic species, and we have only identified less than 600 of them.
Throughout history, over 75% of emerging diseases in humans originated from animals. Just in the last century, at least ten infectious diseases were transmitted from animals to humans. Most global epidemics, such as HIV, avian flu, swine flu, SARS, Ebola, and Zika, fall into this category.
Wet markets in China have been the starting point for the SARS virus transmission from bats to civets and then to humans in 2002. They were also the source of the avian flu outbreak in 2013. And it is possible that the Huanan Seafood Market was another outbreak point, or at the very least, contributed to the spread of Covid-19.
This repetitive pattern has caught the attention of Western media, who have labeled these markets as “wet markets,” a term originally used in Hong Kong and Singapore to differentiate them from markets selling dried and packaged goods.
However, the proliferation of these bizarre and chaotic markets in China, where both live and slaughtered animals are sold, has sparked concerns among Western observers.
In a culture where frozen meat is sold in supermarkets, people were surprised to see the fresh meat being consumed in these markets. Chinese people prefer to eat “warm meat”, as they call it, and the best is the meat that is slaughtered right on the spot.
When NPR journalist Jason Beaubien visited Hong Kong, he got a glimpse of what a market like the Huanan Seafood Market could be like if it were still open. In Hong Kong, there is a market called Tai Po, which is a simulated version of the wet markets in China.
“Everything here is wet,” Beaubien said. He saw fish swimming in open tanks, the water splashing around as they moved. This created a visually appealing marketing strategy that showcased the freshness of the fish.
If a customer chose a fish, the stall owner would take it out of the tank, hit it on the head, and butcher it right in front of them. The table would always be stained with blood, sometimes even with remnants of fish guts, organs, and entrails.
In another corner of the seafood section, live turtles and crustaceans were crawling on top of each other, desperately trying to escape from their boxes. The melting ice added to the overall mess.
“These markets are even cleaner than usual,” a woman named Wong, who owned a shellfish stall, said to Beaubien. “This is not like mainland China.”
Indeed, the live produce found in the Tai Po market is primarily focused on seafood, alongside some farm animals and poultry. In China, wet markets can offer a wider variety of goods, including wild animals, exotic creatures, snakes, and even pandas.
Tai Po does not have any monkeys on display. The only birds found there are chickens. Behind the poultry section, Beaubien met Chan Shu Chung, a man who has been selling chickens at the Tai Po market for 10 years.
Similar to the fish stalls, Chung allows his customers to choose a live chicken from his cage. Once the customer has made their selection, he grabs the chicken by its feet, lifts it up, and exposes its plump chest for the customer to inspect.
If the customer is satisfied and agrees to buy, Chung hands them a numbered plastic card. He then takes another card with the same number and attaches it to the chicken’s leg. Fifteen minutes is the approximate time required to process the chicken. Customers can continue shopping, and when they return with the plastic card, their “warm meat” chicken is ready to be packed and taken home.
The Complex Challenge of Closing Wet Markets in China
Since China has aspired to become a global powerhouse, it has faced the enormous challenge of feeding its 1.4 billion people. Its agricultural system has continuously struggled to find answers to this question.
In the mid-20th century, large tracts of agricultural land, previously controlled by feudal landlords, were redistributed to individual peasant households. Then, in 1953, China revoked these land rights and consolidated them into large-scale agricultural cooperatives.
When the weaknesses of the cooperative model became apparent, China reinstated land-use rights to individual farmers in 1978. Since then, China’s food system has largely relied on a network of small-scale farmers and breeders.
Although land policies have continued to be reformed since the 1990s, allowing farmers to merge their land through leasing or transferring land-use rights, the transition from small-scale agricultural production to large-scale agriculture seen in Western countries has been challenging.
“The Chinese government has long endeavored to achieve the goal of modernizing agriculture, including establishing large-scale farms in recent years,” said Darin Friedrichs, an Asia market analyst at financial company INTL FCStone in Shanghai.
Around 2003, after the SARS outbreak in a wet market in Guangzhou, Beijing encouraged the construction of supply supermarkets to reduce dependence on wet markets and push for their closure.
The avian flu outbreak in 2013 also prompted China to make a firm commitment to completely close these unsanitary markets. However, due to consumer habits and the unmet needs of the population, these closed wet markets gave rise to black markets, defying the ban.
Scandals involving melamine-contaminated infant formula, counterfeit seaweed, and fraudulent shrimp weakened efforts to modernize and regulate food markets. Chinese consumers lost trust in food production chains on a large scale.
Consequently, they continued to turn to hidden wet markets for fresher and cheaper food, according to Si Zhenzhong, a China food safety and security expert at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
With an even greater risk of disease outbreaks, China was forced to reopen wet markets, enhancing surveillance measures. These measures include controlling animal waste, regular disinfection of markets, and promoting hygienic slaughter practices.
Consumers are also being educated about safety principles when visiting wet markets. Disease control measures have been tightened to detect any new outbreaks originating from these markets.
However, these measures have led to an increase in the number of wet markets. They continue to invade not only rural areas but also cities and super metropolitan areas in China.
The slow pace of modernization and scale-up in agricultural production allows numerous individual farmers to survive.
For these small-scale farmers, wet markets are their only opportunities to sell their goods. Supermarkets and large grocery stores are impenetrable for them.
Solutions for the Present and Future
Just one day after the outbreak was announced, the government of Wuhan City closed the Huanan Seafood Market and conducted a comprehensive disinfection of the entire area. However, other wet markets across the country continue to operate.
At the Tai Po market, chicken stall owner Chung claimed not to be afraid of the new coronavirus. While Hong Kong was in a frenzy for face masks, Chung didn’t wear any protective gear on his face, not even a cloth mask.
He stated that he receives an annual flu shot and believed that it has granted him immunity against both SARS and the new coronavirus. Scientific evidence, of course, does not support his claim.
The past has shown that closing all wet markets in China is an impossible task. Wet markets contribute between 30% and 59% of the total food supply in China.
They are also the livelihoods of tens of millions of small traders and workers. Previous efforts to close wet markets in China, after the 2003 SARS outbreak and the 2013 avian flu outbreak, have all led to the same result.
These closures increased prices and created favorable conditions for the formation of black markets. Unregulated trading activities even contributed to more outbreaks of diseases.
People need to establish new norms in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Comprehensive measures of regulation, education, and public awareness campaigns are essential to curb the trading of wildlife animals and minimize the risk of disease outbreaks.
These measures should extend to consumer behavior in wet markets, including providing information about the health risks associated with these markets. With time, as a younger generation grows up, consumer trends are bound to change.
Ultimately, the current operating model of wet markets should be eradicated. China should intensify public education efforts regarding the risks associated with these markets. As a result, the lifestyle and safety of Chinese citizens, as well as other countries around the world, will improve, reducing the nurturing, outbreak, or amplification of diseases within these wet markets.
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Christos Lynteris, an anthropologist at the University of St Andrews, suggests that instead of closing wet markets altogether, China could focus on tighter controls on the trade of a specific commodity: wild animals.
The recent Covid-19 outbreak is believed to have originated from bats. However, bats living in mountain caves cannot fly to a market in the city center to spread the virus to humans directly. There needs to be an intermediate species carrying the virus, animals inadvertently consuming bat droppings or saliva and becoming food for humans.
In the past, civets were the intermediate species responsible for transmitting SARS. Now, suspicion for Covid-19 has shifted to pangolins.
Pangolins are scaly mammals with long tongues for eating ants. They are native to Asia and Africa, and in China, their meat is highly sought after. They are also used in traditional Chinese medicine. Nursing mothers often eat pangolins because they believe it enhances breastfeeding. Elderly or sick people also consider pangolins to have health benefits.
Pangolins are openly sold in wet markets across China, despite being listed as a banned species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Estimates show that between 2000 and 2013, over one million pangolins were illegally sold on the market. Statistics from the Wildlife Justice Commission show that from 2016 to 2019, China alone seized about 206 tons of pangolin scales during 52 arrests related to the illegal trade of this species.
To address this issue, on January 22, the Chinese government issued a comprehensive ban on the trade of wildlife animals nationwide. This move was seen as a powerful step to prevent not only the current pandemic but also future outbreaks.
This means shutting down an estimated multi-billion-dollar market. China is also the largest consumer of wildlife animals globally. In a survey conducted in five Chinese cities in 2014, 83% of respondents in Guangzhou reported consuming wildlife animals at least once a year.
Additionally, traditional Chinese medicine, a health industry valued at 60 billion USD, partly relies on ingredients derived from wildlife animals. For example, in 2016, Chinese pharmaceutical companies had to obtain licenses to use 73,000 pangolins as herbal medicine ingredients.
W. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist at Columbia University known as “the virus hunter,” has been on the frontlines of researching disease outbreaks worldwide.
In 2003, Lipkin went to China during the SARS outbreak to investigate its origin. This year, he had a week-long trip to Guangzhou, the second-most affected province in the Covid-19 outbreak after Hubei.
“I’ve been telling anybody in China, ‘Look, I’ve been saying this in 2003, 2004, 2005, and every year since. We cannot allow these markets for wild animals to persist,'” Lipkin said in a phone interview while in self-isolation for 14 days after returning to the US from an affected area.
But tackling the trade of wildlife animals needs to start at the root. In fact, most of the wildlife animals sold in Chinese wet markets are not truly wild; they are bred and raised in captivity.
As China continues to modernize its livestock chain, it has only been applied to key livestock such as chickens, pigs, and cows. This leaves individual breeders dealing with uncompetitive fish farming.
In their struggle to find a new path, they have turned to wild animals as a more profitable option. On one hand, it avoids the competition with industry giants, and on the other hand, the price of wild animals is higher. This has become a better poverty alleviation solution in rural areas of China, such as Guizhou and Guangxi.
Thankfully, community education measures have shown positive results. A survey in 2014 revealed that 52.7% of respondents in China believed that they should not consume wild animals, an increase from 42.7% in 2004.
In a meeting on February 3, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered tighter market supervision, a resolute ban on illegal wildlife trade, and crackdowns on such activities.
This week, the Chinese National People’s Congress also updated laws and regulations to protect wildlife animals. The Supreme Legislative Court issued a complete ban on the trading and consumption of these items.
According to Nhan Dan newspaper, this ban covers both wild animals living in nature, which were previously protected by law, and captive-bred wildlife.
This implies an even larger impact on the market. A report released by the Chinese government in 2017 estimated the value of China’s wildlife animal trade and consumption industry at 520 billion Chinese yuan, employing over 14 million workers.
More than half of these workers, around 7.6 million, are involved in the fur and leather industry, valued at around 39 billion Chinese yuan. Around 6.2 million work in livestock farming or animal processing for food.
According to experts, the new policy will cause economic losses for a significant part of the population and businesses in China. Therefore, the government should provide support measures, such as helping farmers transition their production models or providing financial assistance packages to affected businesses.
About ten years ago, China successfully curbed shark finning by implementing a community campaign involving celebrities.
This shows that public awareness and education will continue to play a vital role in preventing the trade of wildlife animals and reducing disease risks. This approach can also be extended to consumer habits in wet markets.
In the long run, the operating model of wet markets needs to be eradicated. China should intensify its public education efforts regarding the health risks associated with these markets. As a younger generation grows up, consumer trends are bound to change.
Ultimately, these solutions will not eliminate the risk of disease outbreaks overnight or immediately defuse the time bombs of wet markets. However, over time, they will improve the lives of Chinese citizens and people in other countries, making them safer and reducing the risk of nurturing, outbreaking, or amplifying diseases within wet markets.