Appetite for ‘warm meat’ drives risk of disease in HK and China

25-Jan-2020 Intellasia | The Guardian | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Each evening, under cover of darkness, hundreds of live pigs from farms across China are trucked through the rusting gates of a cluster of mildew-stained quarantine and inspection buildings in the Qingshuihe logistics zone in Shenzhen.

Overnight they are checked for illness, primarily the African swine fever (ASF) that is expected to kill off a quarter of the world’s pigs, and reloaded on to ventilated trucks with dual mainland China and Hong Kong licence plates.

Before sunrise the caravan makes its way five-and-a-half miles south to the border at Man Kam To, a small customs and immigration checkpoint, where the pigs go through further visual health checks before crossing into Hong Kong.

They are bound for Sheung Shui slaughterhouse, the largest of three abattoirs in the territory. Once there they will be checked again before being dispatched in less than 24 hours under new rules meant to prevent the spread of ASF.

It’s a lot of effort to get fresh meat from the 1,400 pigs that cross the border each day.

The appetite for freshly slaughtered ‘warm meat’

For various reasons, the Chinese prefer freshly slaughtered pig, chicken and beef over chilled or frozen meat that has been slaughtered before being shipped.

That desire is at the heart of why diseases such as avian flu in poultry and ASF have been so difficult to eradicate, with huge movements of live animals from all over the country from farm to slaughterhouse to market on a daily basis making controlling the spread of disease incredibly difficult.

A recent coronavirus outbreak in China has been linked to a wet market in Wuhan, eastern China. Like other respiratory illnesses, the disease was initially transmitted from animal to human, but is now being passed human to human.

But despite awareness of the issues, the markets are a huge part of Chinese life. On a busy morning at a so-called “wet market” in the Shajing area, the oldest inhabited and very Cantonese part of Shenzhen, hundreds of shoppers arrive soon after daybreak. Slabs of pork hang from the stalls and various cuts are piled on the counters amid lights with a reddish glare and the occasional buzzing of flies.

Just a few minutes away at the nearby Walmart, where there are also options for fresh, chilled and frozen meat, the customer flow at this time of day is only a trickle compared to the wet market. It has your average western supermarket vibe white daylight lighting, sterile and clean.

Staff at the meat counter in Walmart and at the stalls in the wet market both say the meat comes in from the same slaughterhouse around 2am. So why the huge difference in foot traffic?

Molly Maj, a corporate communications representative for Walmart, says “the average customer in China still prefers fresh meat” over other options.

One reason for the demand for wet markets is that widespread refrigeration only came to China in recent years. While most urban homes now have refrigerators, many in rural areas and low income urban renters still do not own one, or only a mini-fridge if they do.

The habit of buying perishable food for daily use is still prevalent in many consumers, particularly older shoppers who grew up without refrigerators. They say they can tell the quality of fresh meat by its smell, colour and how it feels to the touch.

“When I’m talking with my students I say: ‘The term warm meat, fresh meat, sounds disgusting to me, I grew up [in Germany] with chilled meat, that’s all I know,” Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at City University in Hong Kong and an expert on diseases related to animal husbandry, says.

“So I ask them why and they come up with all sorts of vague things like the soup tastes better or that it is a trust issue, knowing it is a live animal at the other end and not some diseased animal,” he says. “It’s all very subjective.”

An ‘utter disaster’ for disease

Wet markets are central to the perception that fresh meat is better, says Pfeiffer. They evoke nostalgia among shoppers, many of whom come from rural areas where all they knew were wet markets and no refrigeration.

Where a wet market feels familiar a supermarket can seem alien and out of place.

“I actually believe that it is an important thing for the older generation to go to the wet market and chat,” says Pfeiffer. However, the way the animal trade operates in China is “an utter disaster”, for animal disease and welfare, he adds.

A year ago, before rising concerns about the spread of ASF, nearly 4,000 pigs crossed daily with less scrutiny. Pigs were held in dismal conditions for as long as five days before being slaughtered on the Hong Kong side, greatly enhancing the possibility of disease transmission, says Pfeiffer.

The recent shortages due to the ASF outbreak have doubled and tripled prices for fresh pork at wet markets across Hong Kong. Farms in Hong Kong itself can usually supply about 300 pigs a day. Land use and environmental restrictions prevent any increase in production. The result is further worries about Hong Kong’s reliance on mainland China beyond its water and energy dependence.

“Many years ago, we had imports from all over Asia of live animals, but eventually the entire supply was monopolised by mainland China,” said Helena Wong, a member of Hong Kong’s legislative council panel on food safety and environmental hygiene. “They killed all their competitors and monopolised the supply of live pig and chicken.”

More than 6,000 pigs at the Sheung Shui slaughterhouse were culled in May 2019 after ASF was found among animals brought in from China. Hong Kong’s legislative council is now trying to figure out how much it owes traders and farmers in compensation.

Massive culls of poultry due to avian flu in imported mainland chickens in the last decade also led to large compensation bills and, eventually, to ending live chicken imports in early 2016.

“We as taxpayers have to give that money,” said Wong. “So now we are in a big crisis because in the past few years we have experienced avian flu and now African swine fever.”

A future beyond ‘warm meat’ for Hong Kong

Disease outbreaks have raised wider questions about the sustainability of Chinese consumers’ appetite both on the mainland and in Hong Kong for what is often called “warm” meat.

For Deborah Cao, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and an expert on animal protection in China, a deeper issue driving the live animal trade is a cultural disconnect about animal welfare.

“The main problem is the indifference or perception of people who simply regard animals as food, tools, or as things that people can do anything they want to,” she said.

“In particular, there is no perception of farm animals as having feelings, or being capable of feeling pain or suffering.”

Hong Kong may find it difficult to switch to a different model. There is almost no chance of farm expansion to support larger scale production within Hong Kong and, although the government is looking at possibilities of live imports from other Asian countries, the ports do not have adequate facilities to cope with large numbers.

“To a large extent, if we insist on fresh food, we have to rely on China,” said Wong. “If we can change and make certain concessions, Hong Kong has always been an open market for importing food items from many parts of the world. It is only for the provision of live animals that we are monopolised by the mainland farms.”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jan/23/appetite-for-warm-meat-drives-risk-of-disease-in-hong-kong-and-china

 


Category: Hong Kong

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