SHANGHAI – I ate dog just once, and it was an accident. A Chinese scrap-metal dealer with whom I’m friendly invited me to a fancy hotpot restaurant in Chongqing. As the waitress delivered bowl after bowl of dunkable vegetables and raw meats for cooking at our table, I pointed to one and asked: “What’s this?” My friend’s answer, in heavily accented English, sounded like “duck.” It tasted like a meaty hair ball.
As the magnitude of my mistake sank in, I thought of Yulin, the southern Chinese town infamous for its annual dog meat and lychee festival, which opens this week. In recent years, the festival has become synonymous with animal cruelty, attracting celebrity outrage from the likes of Ricky Gervais and Leona Lewis. But it’s also emblematic of a larger failure — one that my unintentional experiment instantly brought to mind.
For years, scandals have been undermining confidence in China’s food supply, ranging from plasticizer in baby formula to “poisonous fake mutton” sold to (gulp) hotpot restaurants. In 2014, authorities shut down a decade-old, nationwide ring that had been selling some 70,000 diseased pigs a year to underground slaughterhouses.
The dog meat trade offers a vivid example of why these problems are so persistent. Visitors to Yulin’s festival have witnessed dogs being slaughtered on streets or in filthy abattoirs. Many of the animals were likely strays or kidnapped, raising serious concerns about disease. Some may have even had rabies. And yet thousands will be consumed over the 10 days of the festival.
That may sound shocking. But with few qualified food inspectors, and plenty of more mainstream worries, regulators aren’t in any hurry to crack down, especially in regions where dog eating is acceptable and contributes to local coffers.
The story is much the same at wet markets across China, whether the animal is a dog or a duck. Despite the best intentions of officials in Beijing, the vast scale of China’s agricultural sector — with hundreds of millions of farmers — makes it difficult to monitor. And its economic importance means that local governments are keen to protect it, no matter how abhorrent the practices. Two years ago, I watched as chicken vendors at a Shanghai-area poultry market were tipped off to a bird flu-related culling and simply fled with their animals.
Even when regulators have tried to crack down, vendors have wised up. The dog meat industry now cleverly advertises itself as a collection of modern, large-scale breeding operations — even though one study found that those breeders tend to be fronts for unsanitary home operators. Their shady counterparts in the pork business have set up similar schemes.
The results are depressing but not surprising: The dog meat festivals continue, food scandals persist and China’s leaders acknowledge that they have a long, long way to go.
It’s not all bad news, however. For one thing, dog meat, never all that popular in China, is becoming less so by the year. Chinese consumers are also increasingly health conscious and willing to spend more for quality food. In time, market forces could have as much of an impact as an army of regulators.
Dog lovers, too, have reasons for optimism. In 2009, the government issued a draft animal welfare law. Although it hasn’t yet passed, its mere existence is a remarkable step for a country that was largely agrarian only a generation ago. More humane butchering will, in time, lead to safer butchering.
Meanwhile, my friend hasn’t forgotten the look on my face as I unwittingly consumed my one and only bite of dog. “It’s not for everyone,” he told me recently. “But I’m sorry.”
Adam Minter is an American writer based in Shanghai, where he covers Asian politics, culture, business and junk. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion Dollar Trash Trade,” a best-selling and critically acclaimed account of his decade writing and reporting in the world’s scrap yards.