Walk into a North American supermarket, and there are rows upon rows of frozen meat to choose from. In China, however, there’s a preference for freshly slaughtered pig, chicken and beef. And that desire for ‘warm meat’ is at the heart of a growing concern.
The recent Wuhan virus outbreak in China has been linked to a wet market in the eastern region of the country. The respiratory disease was transmitted from an animal to a human, but is now being passed between people.
But that’s just one virus spread through animals. And diseases such as avian flu in poultry and African Swine Flu (ASF) have been difficult to eradicate, as chickens and pigs are shipped from farmhouse to market on a daily basis.
Despite the risks, markets are central to Chinese life. While there are supermarkets stocked with frozen meat (which staff say is the same meat provided to vendors elsewhere), the customer flow is a trickle compared to the hustle and bustle of the so-called “wet markets.”
That’s partly because widespread refrigeration has only recently come to China. In some rural and lower income areas, fridges are still rare. Among older consumers who have grown up buying perishable food for daily use, shoppers say they can tell the quality of fresh meat by its smell, colour and texture.
Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at City University in Hong Kong, says while trust is high for shoppers at wet markets, many customers still see supermarkets as alien and suspect.
Socializing is also part of the market experience.“I actually believe that it is an important thing for the older generation to go to the wet market and have a chat,” said Pfeiffer.
As fresh meat continues to be associated with viral outbreaks, though, how sustainable the appetite for wet markets may be is unclear.