There is a frenzied outcry in the media at the moment regarding wet markets and their alleged role in the outbreak of the current pandemic. What is not being made clear is that there are two very different types of wet markets. The first and most common type is the normal daily fresh food market located throughout Asia and many other parts of the developing world that are a fundamental element in domestic food supply chains. These do not represent a serious risk and must remain open. The second and uncommon type of wet markets are those engaged in the sale and consumption of wild and exotic species. These are where there is a risk of disease transfer to humans and where animal welfare standards are unacceptable. This type of wet market must be closed as a matter of the highest priority.
The origins of the wild animal wet markets in China are quite simple and logical. Following decades of Chairman Mao’s polices in the 50’s and 60’s agricultural production collapsed across China and millions died of starvation. When the policies were finally changed, food shortages remained critical for many years. One of the new government initiatives introduced to improve food availability was to encourage farmers to catch, farm and sell wild animals for both home consumption and commercial markets. Fifty years on, food is now plentiful in China but the wild animal markets have continued to be popular among a small subset of culinary adventure-seekers. There have been a number of attempts to close these markets in recent years but many have managed to survive with some going underground. The horror of the current pandemic will almost certainly result in their final closure.
Before we get too carried away with our condemnation of the nasty practices of foreign cultures it is instructive to consider some of the delicacies that are regarded as perfectly acceptable and in fact highly desirable by the main stream in the “sophisticated” west. Popular dishes in highly fashionable French cuisine include frogs and snails. Many parts of the west regard rabbits as a delicacy, I certainly do. And let’s not forget the current and very trendy push towards supplementing the world’s human protein supply through the production and consumption of insects. When people are hungry they will consider eating just about anything in order to stay alive. It’s not a matter of culture, just how hungry you are. I would hazard a guess that the French discovered the culinary delights of frogs, snails and rabbits during one of the many European famines they have experienced during the last 1,000 years.
Then there are the normal Asian style wet markets which provide fresh produce daily to about half the world’s population. Much of this population does not have financial resources to enjoy the luxury of airconditioned supermarkets with paddock to plate cold chains. The best way to get a fresh chicken under these circumstances is to have it slaughtered only a very short time before purchase which ensures it is fresh before it is taken home and cooked within a few hours. This “just in time” perishable food supply model has been used since the beginning of civilization and allowed the successful development of large, safe, temperature sensitive food supply chains without the need for refrigeration.
These markets would certainly benefit from a good clean up which would further improve the safe consumption times of their perishable products. This upgrading is already under way in many parts of Asia. See photo below.
Across Asia, cattle are slaughtered in thousands of small abattoirs located in most cases less than 30 minutes travel from the massive number of local wet market sites. This allows the huge populations to all receive freshly killed beef at a local market not far from their home every day of the week. Slaughter generally commences around midnight with delivery to the market site about 3-4 am with sales beginning at 5am, ending with everything sold between 9 and 10 am. Butchers are in close communication with their wet market traders who can advise in good time if more or less animals are needed for the early morning kill. This simple process ensures that only the appropriate number of animals are slaughtered to meet the needs of the next morning’s market. The domestic customers will take the beef home or to their food service outlet where they cook it using high temperature woks within 3 to 5 hours ending bacterial multiplication and any health risk. The end result of these simple steps is an extremely efficient system with very little waste, no requirement for an expensive cold chain and minimal risk to human health.