Is it fair to blame unsanitary wet market conditions in China for the coronavirus outbreak?

Zhenzhong Si*

February 7, 2020

Scientists believe that the coronavirus outbreak in China was originated from the Wuhan Seafood Market, a popular wholesale market that sells live animals from both animal farms and poaching. Wholesale markets are like food distribution hubs. They are the major food source for wet markets, supermarkets and restaurants. Thousands of large food brokers transport vegetables, fruits, meat and other food from farms across the country to these wholesale markets in cities. Some of the food will then be purchased by small vendors to sell at wet markets. Households then purchase food, mainly fresh produce and meat, from these wet markets on a daily basis. A large Chinese city like Wuhan typically has a few large wholesale markets supplying food to hundreds of wet markets. Because of the close linkage alongside the urban food supply chain, contamination of food in a few wholesale markets could easily spread to the wet market network. The Chinese government has thus paid much attention to food safety inspections of these markets, especially since the widespread of food safety concerns in the past decade or so.

Despite the stringent food safety regulation, sanitary condition has been a hovering challenge for these traditional food markets. The SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 was found to be transmitted from the masked palm civets sold in local food markets in Guangzhou. Seventeen years later, this coronavirus outbreak was again traced back to a local food market in Wuhan. Now it seems that wet markets are demonized to be the “source of evil”. Suddenly, Chinese wet markets appeared in international news headlines. Although media reports or documentaries such as this one provided much useful information to contextualize the outbreak, they have been, intentionally or not, feeding the public’s curiosity about the exotic wild animals in these markets to attract more attention. But a question that emerges from the turmoil is, is it fair for us to blame wet markets for the coronavirus outbreak? Or, to what extent should wet markets be responsible for this and other outbreaks of infectious diseases?

Many people ignored that the whole tragedy is not purely an issue of the market. It is indeed an issue of wild animal trade. Most wet markets or wholesale markets do not have wild animals for sale. Most vendors in these markets do not sell wild animals. The Wuhan Seafood Market is not a very common case in China. Although sanitary condition is a potential risk of food safety in many traditional food markets, others are able to maintain the shopping environment very well.

In many Chinese cities, wet markets are no longer “wet” because municipal governments have invested a lot in upgrading the facilities. Wet markets in major cities have all been relocated from open spaces to indoor buildings in recent years. This is because wet markets and wholesale markets are not treated by the Chinese government as profit-driven private businesses but rather viewed as urban infrastructures for public interest, particularly urban food security and public health. This positioning of traditional food markets in Chinese urban policy fostered the investment of huge public funding to upgrade market facilities. While researchers have been calling for food planning in the western context, the Chinese government has been practicing it for decades.

Wholesale markets and wet markets are central in urban food planning while supermarkets are playing a complementary role. They are also the dominant source of fresh produce and meat, despite the competition from supermarkets and other emerging modern food retailing formats. Our research with the Hungry Cities Partnership in Nanjing, China found that for more than 90% of households, wet markets are accessible within walking distances. This is a tremendous achievement given that some developed countries are still struggling with the problem of “food desert”.

No alt text provided for this image

A wet market in downtown Nanjing

No alt text provided for this imageA wet market in Nanjing, wet markets are typically providing a wide selection of fresh produce

No alt text provided for this imageMost wet market vendors take mobile payments with QR codes like this

No alt text provided for this imageFood safety labs testing chemical residues in a wholesale market in Nanjing

Given the huge variances between each city in China, you could always find traditional food markets with terrible sanitary conditions, such as this one. These not-so-clean markets are usually located in suburban areas and small cities where the population density is much lower.

No alt text provided for this imageA wet market in a small city in central China

After the outbreak of avian flu in 2013, many Chinese major cities have banned the sale of live chicken in wet markets. Yet, you could still find them in many markets in smaller cities. This is mainly because fresh chicken is a popular ingredient for Chinese cooking. In many parts of China, people are not used to packaged pre-slaughtered meat. However, these live chicken are supposed to pass hygienic inspections of the government.

But the point is, these are not wild animals. According to scientists, wild animals, not farmed animals, are the natural hosts of many viruses, some of which are transmittable to humans. The coronavirus outbreak is indeed an outcome of wild animal trade.

More importantly, wild animals are not only sold in some food markets but also available in restaurants and many other channels, according to this investigative report. People could purchase wild meat from vendors through mobile apps. They could also get them from poachers and local farmers who hunt wild animals in their spare time for sale.

It is thus problematic to blame wet markets for the virus outbreak. It is not a problem of the venue but an issue of the wild animal trade. After all, wild animals are not safe to eat even if they are from supermarkets. The real question we should ask is, how could we eradicate the supply chain of wild animals.

If there is no demand, there will be no supply. Luckily, we’ve seen that the ban on wild animal trade has been written in the most recent amendment of Wild Animal Protection Law. More detailed regulations are coming following the so-called “comprehensive ban”. It is also a necessary step for the Chinese government to understand the motivations of wild meat consumption. A radical public education campaign is needed to change people’s mindset. Not only wet markets and wholesale markets, but also other sources of wild meat such as restaurants, online markets, poachers and animal farms should be more stringently regulated. Only with these comprehensive approaches could we prevent another epidemic like this in the future.

*University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs, Waterloo, Canada