SHANGHAI – The deadliest outbreak of H7N9 bird flu since its discovery in 2013 is sweeping across China. It’s caused at least 100 deaths and has been detected in half the country’s provinces. So far, the virus seems to be spreading only between birds and the humans who slaughter them for food. But the potential for human-to-human transmission — the trigger for a full-blown pandemic — can’t be ruled out. In response, Chinese authorities have temporarily shut down live poultry markets in some of the country’s biggest cities.
The strategy has been proven to work, and authorities in China and Hong Kong have deployed it for decades. But every year, so-called wet markets reopen and both new and known viruses reemerge. If authorities won’t close such markets permanently — and realistically, they can’t, given how large a role the markets continue to play in China’s food chain — they need to do far more to fix what’s wrong with them. The good news is, that should be relatively cheap and easy to do.
Over the last four decades, the retail experience in China has changed dramatically. Once relegated to state-owned outlets selling drab and shoddily made products, shoppers now flock to malls glitzier and tackier than anything in the West. The wet market — typically a crowded, open-air emporium where individual vendors sell food sourced from local farms and distributors — has stubbornly resisted change. Yet as recently as 2013, some 80 percent of Chinese still chose to buy their fresh vegetables at such places, despite government efforts to promote modern supermarkets.
The proportion will be tough to bring down. China’s food production remains concentrated among hundreds of millions of farmers who, according to the country’s last agriculture census, tend farms that average around 0.6 hectares each. Supermarket chains have a hard time sourcing from such tiny producers. Wet markets don’t, so the food they offer is often fresher and cheaper.
When it comes to meat and fish in particular, Chinese prefer to see their purchase alive — and then slaughtered — to ensure that it hasn’t been frozen (which damages flavor and texture — a sin in any Chinese kitchen) or been sitting around in less-than-optimal storage facilities for hours or even days. Prior to 2003, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. actually allowed live slaughtering in its Chinese outlets.
The point isn’t that Wal-Mart and other modern supermarkets should return to such practices; live slaughter is a primary means of spreading virus to humans. Instead, wet markets need to be forced to modernize their own practices. It’s an old tale: China’s food-safety regulators lack the resources and are often uninterested in enforcing basic biosecurity and food-safety requirements in China’s thousands of wet markets and millions of small farms. Temporary closures are useless if wet markets simply return to their unhygienic practices after reopening.
The majority of poultry farms in China (and other developing countries) are small-scale household operations that lack modern management and basic biosecurity measures, such as separating cultivated birds from livestock (especially pigs, which are excellent incubators for flu viruses that infect humans) and household inhabitants. From the farms, these problems move into wet markets, where birds are often kept in tight cages and the mere flapping of wings can turn fecal droppings into aerosolized virus. Meanwhile, the potential mixing of bodily fluids between species during the slaughtering process remains the most dangerous point in the entire process.
These practices can be changed. Large-scale, corporate poultry operations are growing in China, bringing modern biosecurity practices to China’s farms and creating safe, price-competitive products. Though big farms potentially have their own biosecurity issues, they’re a vast improvement on the poorly regulated hodgepodge of small operations that currently prevails.
For their part, wet markets can easily improve their safety practices without going out of business. A decade ago, in the wake of the first avian flu panics, the World Health Organization published basic guidelines. The suggestions are simple and inexpensive to implement: separate slaughtering zones from selling areas, use metal or plastic cages that can be easily cleaned, discourage selling live poultry to customers and so on. The key is for the government to enforce such rules strictly, especially in the most populated areas of the country.
To encourage that, Beijing should begin directly evaluating local officials for how well they promote food safety in their jurisdictions. This isn’t as outlandish as it might sound. For decades, Chinese officials were promoted — or demoted — on the basis of how much economic growth and social stability they oversaw. Recently, China reformed this system to take into account how well they protected the environment as well.
Food safety, consistently a top concern of Chinese citizens, should join the list. Officials must be made to realize that when it comes to the possibility of a pandemic, a bit of preventative medicine is as good as a cure.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Shanghai. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”