‘Mixed with prejudice’: calls for ban on ‘wet’ markets misguided, experts argue

‘Mixed with prejudice’: calls for ban on ‘wet’ markets misguided, experts argue

Attacks and calls to ban “wet markets” because of their potential for spreading diseases such as Covid-19 may be missing the point, say experts.

Earlier this week Sir Paul McCartney, a long-time vegetarian campaigner, called wet markets “medieval” and said that it made sense to ban them. “When you’ve got the obscenity of some of the stuff that’s going on there and what comes out of it, they might as well be letting off atomic bombs. It’s affecting the whole world.”

Last week more than 60 US lawmakers called for a global ban on what are referred to interchangeably as “live wildlife markets” or “wet markets”. And animal welfare groups have also been calling for a ban.

According to US lawmakers: “‘Wet’ markets in particular pose a threat to global public health because wildlife comes from many different locations without any standardised sanitary or health inspection processes.”

Animal Equality argues that the markets are not only “inhumane” and a source of “intensive suffering inflicted on farmed animals”, but that they are also a “threat to public health”.

But experts who know the markets well say that they are just one link in a chain of both legal and illicit wildlife trade that needs intensive regulation, monitoring and enforcement to reduce heath risks, demand and consumption.

In China, much of Asia, and some other parts of the world, a “wet market” is a term used for any market where fresh meat, fish, vegetables and fruits, and other perishable goods, are sold in an open-air setting. The “wet” part comes from sellers sloshing water on produce to keep it cool and fresh.

While the markets may be considered unsanitary by western standards, most wet markets in China do not sell live animals other than fish in tanks, or sometimes in open pools.

Many markets in China stopped selling live poultry after widespread avian flu outbreaks led provinces and local governments to ban such sales over the past decade.

A worker in a protective suit is seen at the closed seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei province, China 10 January 2020.

And while it is rare to see wildlife sold in these markets, the practice has continued in poorly regulated sites, such as the now-infamous Wuhan South China Seafood Market, which was suspected to be a primary source for spreading Covid-19 during late 2019.

“If we really want to prevent future pandemics, we have to do a lot more than just stop live wildlife being slaughtered at markets or wild meat being sold at markets,” Debbie Banks, head of the tiger campaign at the Environmental Investigation Agency, told the Guardian.

“In some countries, wildlife is commercially harvested and commercially farmed and transported direct to restaurants, consumed at private banquets, and used in traditional medicine, so there is a need to address demand and other retail venues besides wet markets,” she said.

Using terms such as “wet markets” in debates on the issue also risks further stoking misconceptions and cultural prejudices, argue some.

“This call for a ban comes from cultural differences often mixed with prejudice,” Kartini Samon, a Jakarta-based campaigner with the nonprofit Grain who has studied wet markets in the region, told the Guardian. “Wet markets are very common and have a long history in many places in Asia.”

The Wuhan market was closed on 1 January. Authorities in China placed a temporary ban on all trade in wildlife in late January, including any trade in wildlife to be consumed for meat, to be used in traditional medicine, and for fur and other purposes.

Further fine-tuning of the laws and regulations around the trade is ongoing. But it is the regulatory environment that allowed for such trade at the Wuhan market and the networks that supplied it that needs to be addressed, say experts, not simply the existence of the markets themselves.

Across many countries wet markets provide an important outlet for small farmers to sell their produce, said Samon. “In a country like India or Indonesia, between 25 and 40 million people rely on wet markets and informal food vendors for their livelihoods.”

Fish for sale in a market in Israel.

And while markets like Wuhan’s may be an outlier for their trade in live wildlife, others say that more needs to be done to address general sanitation and hygiene at wet markets.

“That means setting standards and sticking to them and having strict enforcement measures against practices that could transmit illness and disease. [That] is more sensible than shutting them down, which won’t be consistently enforceable,” said Dirk Pfeiffer, chair professor at City University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences in Hong Kong.

Pfeiffer believes that over time many wet markets will disappear in places like China due to changes in consumer preferences and convenience.

Some supermarkets already try to replicate a “mini-wet market” atmosphere with a butcher available under familiar reddish lighting for shoppers to chat with about which cuts are more fresh in a way that is harder to do in larger, impersonal, brightly-lit supermarkets.

“I do think that wet markets are an issue when it comes to food safety standards and to adverse environmental impact. But that can be dealt with by regulation and raising awareness among consumers and traders,” Pfeiffer said.

“We need to focus on changing the demand, because as long as that is there it will be a way for people to trade in wild animals and their products,” he said.

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