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Why 'Wet Markets' Persisted In China Despite Disease And Hygiene Concerns


China is stopping outbound flights, trains and bus rides from the city of Wuhan as the virus that's thought to have started there continues to spread. There are more than 500 confirmed cases of this strain of the coronavirus, which can cause severe respiratory illnesses. Already, there have been 17 deaths in China.


Chinese authorities say the outbreak likely began in an open food market in Wuhan. These are markets known as wet markets. And health officials specifically suspect the virus came from wild animals they say were being sold illegally at the Wuhan market. That market was shut down on January 1.

Zhenzhong Si is a research associate at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. He focuses on food security and safety in China. Welcome.

ZHENZHONG SI: Thank you.

CHANG: So first, for people who have never been to China, can you just describe what we're talking about here? What is a wet market?

SI: Yeah, of course. Actually, wet markets is the predominant food retail outlets for fresh produce and meat in Chinese cities. A large city typically has a few hundred wet markets. Actually, the Chinese government has been trying to convert many of the wet markets in cities to supermarkets. They tried this in 2002 but failed just because they were no longer able to provide fresh food at a cheaper price, so they lost their original customers.

CHANG: And there are live animals at these markets, right?

SI: Yeah. Yeah. In many of these wet markets, there are live animals. However, after the 2003 SARS outbreak, there has been some crackdown on selling live birds - live poultry, including chicken and ducks as well. So in many wet markets in large cities, you probably wouldn't find many live animals, but you can still find them in some of them...


SI: ...Like this Wuhan market that you just mentioned.

CHANG: And besides maybe live birds, what other kind of live animals might have been at this market?

SI: Oh, there is a photo being circulated since yesterday in Chinese social media, showing the catalog of one store at this market. And you can see from the catalog, they have almost 50 different kinds of species of wild animals being sold. And you can see the price as well. So it's...

CHANG: Like what kind of wild animals?

SI: For example, hedgehogs and peacocks and wild rabbits and snakes, deer; crocodiles as well. Many of these wild animals, they're not necessarily caught in the wild - right? - so they can be farmed animals. They're just exotic food that's not very commonly found.

CHANG: And why are wild animals so popular as a delicacy in China?

SI: Eating wild animal is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. And wild animals is also considered more natural and, thus, nutritious, compared to farmed meat. It's a belief in traditional Chinese medicine that it can boost the immune system, you know? Of course, some people eat wild animals just because they were driven by curiosity.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SI: It's really difficult to change the mindset of, you know, eating wild animals is better than eating farmed animals. But it's a common kind of mindset in many parts of China.

CHANG: So your research looks at food security, food safety in China. What do you think needs to happen maybe to prevent future outbreaks like this? What changes do you think are important?

SI: Well, certainly, we need better enforcement of policies in wet markets to make sure that there is no food safety risk, especially wild animals and live chicken, for example. However, I want to emphasize that many Chinese municipal governments are actually supporting the development of new wet markets in the city because it's such an important source of fresh produce and meats for the majority of urban residents. It's also a part of the urban lifestyle. Some people argue that it provides a space for socialization, you know, for people to talk to others. And a lot of people enjoy shopping at wet markets compared to supermarkets.

CHANG: Zhenzhong Si of the University of Waterloo is the co-author of the book "Organic Food And Farming In China: Top-Down And Bottom-Up Ecological Initiatives."

Thank you very much for joining us today.

SI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.