Shanghai, China - Consumers in China are no strangers to food scares and scandals, but the mystery of thousands of swine and poultry carcasses flooding into rivers across the country has many Chinese wondering what's going on.
In recent years, Chinese have had to worry about melamine-tainted milk powder, exploding watermelons, pesticide-laden vegetables, and antibiotic-pumped chickens. So when thousands of dead pigs started turning up in the Huangpu River in Shanghai, the city's residents were alarmed but not shocked.
Nu, a shop keeper in the former French Concession area of the city who gave only one name, said he is worried about the latest incident, particularly the water quality, but added he is always concerned about such matters.
"The river is not clean. The underground water is polluted, and not just because of this," Nu said.
The first pigs were discovered in early March upstream of the river, which supplies about 20 percent of the city's 23 million residents with tap water. But it was not until the numbers of pig carcasses reached almost 1,000 that it made national news.
"In previous years, people were buying these dead pigs and selling them to supermarkets or markets, and it becomes the pork we eat."
- Wu Heng, food safety activist
Within days, nearly 3,000 pigs had been hauled from the river, and videos and photos began to circulate online of sanitation workers on barges fishing out the bloated, decomposing swine with long bamboo poles.
Authorities in Shanghai confirmed this week that the clean-up is almost complete in Shanghai, and a total of 11,000 pigs had been retrieved from the Huangpu River.
State media reported that lab tests on some of the pigs detected a swine flu known as porcine circovirus. However, authorities said the virus cannot be spread to humans and reassured residents that water quality in Shanghai had not been affected.
Meanwhile, 46 people were arrested for selling meat from diseased pigs, but no connection between the two cases has been confirmed.
In Jiaxing, in the neighbouring province of Zhejiang where the pigs are thought to have come from, authorities said another 5,600 pig carcasses were also recovered from rivers there.
Then, just as the case of the dead pigs had begun to die down, state media reported more than 1,000 rotting ducks had been fished out of a river in Penghan, in the southwest province of Sichuan.
"Judging by the level of decomposition, the ducks must have been dead for days and they were not dumped by people living nearby," Zhang Jichuan, the county's deputy director of environmental protection, was quoted as saying.
The ducks were disposed of and posed no threat to public health, a local official told the state-run news agency Xinhua.
However, just like the dead pigs, it is still not known what exactly the ducks died from. Officials from the local government said they suspected the ducks had originated from a farm in another area that had recently experienced a disease outbreak.
Concerns have been raised that the pigs in Shanghai may have also died from a virus, but this has been denied by the city's veterinary department.
|Thousands of dead pigs ended up in the Huangpu River
Officials in the Jiaxing area admitted that 70,000 pigs had died because of what they described as "crude raising techniques and extreme weather at the start of the year". All of the bodies were disposed of safely, they said.
Illegally processing pigs
Last weekend a state-run television station reported that illegally processed pigs have been entering the food system for a number of years.
The "News Investigation" programme on Chinese Central Television News (CCTV) reported that illegal swine dealers in Jiaxing city - where the carcasses found in the Huangpu River are believed to have originated - had purchased dead pigs from illegal breeders and sold them onto markets for years.
However, since a new law came into effect last year, there has been a crackdown on the trade of such meat.
The report quoted a resident of Jiaxing, Pan Huimin, who is in custody under suspicion of dealing in dead pigs. He told CCTV his arrest was linked to the dead pig dumping incident. Pan said farmers dumped dead pigs in the river "because nobody buys them anymore".
Meanwhile, 46 people in eastern Zhejiang province were jailed earlier this month for processing and selling meat from diseased pigs. The ringleader who "illegally purchased, slaughtered the diseased pigs and sold the meat" was sentenced to six and a half years in prison and fined 800,000 yuan ($129,000), Xinhua reported.
|More than 1,000 dead ducks have also been found [Reuters]
Wu Heng is the founder of a website called Throw it Out the Window, a database of news on food safety issues in China. Wu explained that the thousands of pig and duck carcases being found in rivers has helped to highlight the issue of discarding unwanted livestock.
Wu investigated and found that each spring many animals destined for the dinner table die from disease and other causes.
"In previous years, people were buying these dead pigs and selling them to supermarkets or markets, and it becomes the pork we eat," he said.
But recently the Chinese authorities began restricting such practices, "so the farmers have to put animals into [the] river, rather than sell to people", Wu said.
Despite declarations from authorities that the food supply is safe and markets have been inspected for diseased pork, Shanghai residents remain concerned.
Gao, a Shanghai resident who was buying vegetables at a local market, said he thinks the meat from dead and discarded pigs is likely to turn up at markets in the city. He said he stopped buying pork entirely. "It is the system for providing food, so it is difficult for it to change," said Gao, who gave only his surname as is common in China. "But let's see what the new government does. [Premier] Li Keqiang said that he will mainly focus on food safety."
"It is a disaster because of this issue. There are problems in the [food] system."
- Andrew, concerned consumer
Outside a nearby busy supermarket, another shopper who asked to be identified only as Andrew said he worries about food quality in general, not just because of the dead animals. "For us, it is a disaster because of this issue. There are problems in the [food] system."
He said he stopped buying pork and has encouraged his family to buy bottled water from other provinces to drink.
Even state-run media has called for answers about the origin of the dead pigs and demanded transparency into China's latest food and water scare. The People's Daily newspaper said the Shanghai government must tell people how the pigs died.
"The longer it takes to discover the cause of the deaths, the more reasons people have to believe that governments are covering up something crucial that's related to public health," an editorial in the newspaper said.
Wu Heng said it is hard to tell whether food safety is improving. "All I can say is that in these two years, more and more food safety scandals happen ... Maybe the media has played a more important role, because this kind of scandal happened for many years, but no media reported it."