A wet market in Guangxi, southern China.

Don’t blame wet markets for the coronavirus outbreak

Feb 10, 2020

Wild animals sold at a Chinese wet market have been blamed for the coronavirus outbreak, but most venues sell local produce and are an indispensable part of daily life. Eliminating them would be tragic.

Global anxiety around a novel coronavirus stemming from China has turned the world’s attention to a type of open-air market that’s common in this region: the wet market.

Specifically, many people are blaming these markets—where fresh meat, fish, and produce are sold out in the open—for the outbreak. Some researchers believe the virus jumped from animals to humans at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.
The now-shuttered Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. / Photo: AFP

The link between the market and virus has reinvigorated age-old xenophobic sentiments about Chinese food and Chinese eating habits.

We’ve noticed it on our own channel, particularly in the comments section of pieces related to Chinese food, where people have blamed the virus outbreak on an appetite for dogs, cats, and other “exotic” animals sold at markets.

“Does she do a good bat soup?,” read one comment on Facebook under our video about Dianxi Xiaoge, a widely beloved Chinese chef known for her homestyle cooking videos. “Not a good time to promote Chinese cuisine,” read another.

Despite Western characterizations of the wet market as a place teeming with the bizarre and visceral (a recent NPR piece describes stalls “red with blood as fish are gutted and filleted right in front of the customers’ eyes”), most wet markets are mundane affairs, a place to buy produce directly from the source.

Shopping for groceries at a wet market in Hong Kong.
Shopping for groceries at a wet market in Hong Kong. / Photo: May Tse/SCMP

They’re an indispensable part of daily life, and while much has been made about the range of wild animals sold at the Wuhan market—from palm civets to wolf cubs—it was the exception, not the norm. For many people, especially those with low income, wet markets provide an affordable alternative to marked-up supermarket produce.

They are the original farmers’ markets, before farmers’ markets became trendy.

In many big cities in China, wet markets are some of the last remaining vestiges of our connection to food. They are the original farmers’ markets, before farmers’ markets became trendy.

(Read more: How live-streaming is helping Chinese farmers sell their produce)

Here, customers have a direct relationship with the producers of their food. Livestock stalls specialize in one type of meat. Mom-and-pop shops churn out fresh tofu, noodles, and chewy fish balls every day. Customers develop a rapport with their favorite vendors. In smaller cities, farmers will bring their homegrown vegetables directly to the nearest wet market.

A wet market in Hong Kong. Customers often develop a rapport with their favorite vendors.
A wet market in Hong Kong. Customers often develop a rapport with their favorite vendors. / Photo: May Tse/SCMP

Such care and attention is hard to come by in a supermarket, where produce has often traveled far. I’d much rather bring home a freshly slaughtered whole fish than a frozen precut slice of mystery fish that was processed in a factory halfway across the world.

Ironically, many functions of a traditional wet market are making a comeback in the States—in the form of artisanal butchers and seafood markets run entirely by local fishermen.

(Read more: The boom of rural farm-to-table dining in China)

The culprit in the outbreak, then, isn’t the wet market itself; it’s in the lack of regulation and shoddy sanitation practices. Eliminating wet markets altogether would be devastating because it would deny people access to fresh produce.

I’d much rather bring home a freshly slaughtered whole fish than a frozen precut slice of mystery fish that was processed in a factory halfway across the world.

All live animals are susceptible to disease, but the conditions in which we capture, breed, monitor, and sell them all make a difference. A large human population, coupled with an insatiable appetite for meat, means many producers cut corners to meet demand.

When we visited a hot pot produce market in Chongqing last year, we saw offal and entrails being sold in styrofoam containers on the ground. No one washed their hands between handling money or meat. It reeked of urine.

But I’ve also seen incredibly clean wet markets. There was one in Shanghai housed in a bright indoor space where everything was labeled. Our interviewee bought live eel from a pristine tank, took it home, and whipped up an amazing dish with it.

While wet markets are ubiquitous around China, they are incredibly diverse in their conditions, and over the years, they’ve been improving.

A seafood market in Jiangsu, eastern China.
A seafood market in Jiangsu, eastern China. / Photo: Xinhua

In Shanghai, all wet markets were moved indoors in 1999. In 2014, the live poultry trade was banned out of concern for bird flu.

The government has allowed 54 wild species to be bred and raised on farms, which will make them easier to regulate. And China has already issued a temporary ban against all wild animal trade.

Outside of Asia, wet markets may have a bad reputation, and there have been calls to eliminate them altogether. But I rue the alternative: a world where all meat comes precut and frozen, sourced from giant companies with big factories in parts unknown.

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