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Wet Markets in China: A Food Safety Perspective

Opinion

While I was studying in Hong Kong, I lived in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood, an area abundant with local retailers and with a large wet market selling a wide variety of fresh produce, seafood, and meat. There wasn’t really anything I could not find in the neighbourhood, except for some standard North American items such as doughnuts and microwaveable popcorn. I could always count on being sufficiently satiated by shopping from vendors no more than a block from my building.

I must admit that when I first moved to the area, I questioned whether it would be safe for me to shop for food there. I obviously stood out as a foreigner and I wasn’t sure if my immune system could handle consuming the local fare. However, I began noticing other foreigners buying food from the local vendors, so I enquired about their shopping experiences. They all said they had never encountered issues consuming food from the neighbourhood, so I eased my way into purchasing groceries from the wet market and local retailers. However, I always wondered how it was possible that so much fresh meat and seafood was sold there without any major associated health issues. Later, I discovered that the local government used the hazards analysis and critical control points ( HACCP) to regulate food safety standards for wet markets in Hong Kong and China.

Traditional Chinese Wet Markets

Traditional wet markets existed in China long before the refrigerator was invented. Wet markets have a reputation for selling the freshest produce, meat and other food products, because a majority of the goods sold are locally grown in the region. However, controversy over foodborne disease outbreaks has increased public and institutional concern for food safety and public health problems surrounding wet market food production, distribution, and storage systems.

The population in China has been steadily rising in recent decades. Increases in food production and distribution have led to a higher density of people shopping at local markets. As a result, food products at wet markets are coming into contact with increased amounts of pathogens, leading to heightened risks of foodborne diseases. Other causal factors of foodborne diseases include unhygienic conditions and utilities for processing and storage of food products, a lack of vendor access to clean water and heated sanitization stations, and improper disposal of animal fluids including blood and faeces (Poto, 2011). Avian Influenza (AI), which can be contracted through contact with the meat, feathers, bones, liquids, and faeces of an infected animal, is one example of a foodborne disease that can originate from wet markets.

A recent consultation on AI and human health by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank recognized the major role wet markets have played in the emergence of AI. In 1997, wet markets were identified as a major originating source of avian influenza-H5N1 in chickens throughout Hong Kong, where 20 percent of the chickens in the markets were infected. In 2005, 83 percent of human H5N1 cases around the world were found to be from exposure to infected poultry (“Unprecedented widespread outbreaks,” 2005).

Due to concerns surrounding food safety, expanded fresh food sections in supermarkets across China became wildly popular, as these retailers sold and stored food under more hygienic conditions. This trend led to the closure of many wet markets in cities across China. While replacing wet markets with supermarkets can improve food safety issues, it is not very supportive of local food security.

Local Markets and Industrial Food Systems

In comparison to industrialized food systems currently employed in North America, wet markets in China have much greater potential to strengthen the local food movement, as they offer vendor space for local food producers to sell fresh goods to the public. Industrial food systems were established to minimize costs, rather than to enhance food security; they minimize local sourcing of food and decrease freshness and nutrition. This is why North American supermarkets sell apples and beef from New Zealand and fish from China, despite the fact there are huge apple and beef producers across the continent and access to fisheries in two different oceans.

One of the main reasons Chinese wet markets are slowly being replaced by supermarkets is the poor hygiene and food safety standards of fresh markets. Many food vendors in Asia are not educated about public health or food safety standards, nor are they trained to maintain good hygiene while distributing food to help prevent the spread of foodborne diseases. However, such problems can be remedied with regulations and proper training, to allow local food to be safely and abundantly available to the public.

Promoting Healthy Marketplaces

The 2006 conference during which OIE, WHO and FAO and the World Bank discussed AI and Human Pandemic Influenza stressed the need to contain the AI-H5N1 at its source, which includes poultry farms and wet markets. Members worked with the idea of a Healthy Marketplace, in which all stakeholders work together towards an agreed-upon vision for the market community’s health and safety. Stakeholders may include those operating within the market setting itself or those interested in and committed to the marketplace, such as politicians, local authorities and consumers. Participatory processes certainly strengthen this commitment.

The conference developed the following strategies:

  • Familiarize stakeholders with the concept of Healthy Food Markets and food safety standards, in order to foster authorities’ political commitment to supporting the initiative
  • Establish committees with representation of all stakeholders to monitor and implement action plans, such as identification of the current bio-security levels of wet markets and assessments of their contribution to outbreaks
  • Conduct cost-benefit analyses (i.e. infrastructure, surveillance, research, training, and revenue) of Healthy Food Markets to assess their viability for replication in different countries.
  • Identify benefits of Healthy Food Markets – enhanced public health, avoided treatment and control expenditures, prevention of a pandemic, avoided economic losses, public empowerment, and lower GHG emission – to demonstrate the effectiveness of food safety (“Unprecedented widespread outbreaks,” 2005)

Minimizing the Spread of Foodborne Diseases

The conference also recommended that improved hygiene and animal handling practices in wet markets will prevent the spread of AI viruses and other pathogens. The following are actions for wet market food safety:

  • Add a bottom tray to animals’ cages to reduce faecal contamination of roads and surrounding areas when poultry are transported to and from the market
  • Conduct ongoing surveillance and sampling of birds in wet markets to assess their health status
  • Separate poultry-selling areas from other areas of the market to reduce contamination
  • Implement regular disinfection and upgrade procedures of all wet market vendor spaces and equipment to prevent the buildup of pathogens and pests
  • Establish in-market facilities for special disposal of faecal matter and for disinfecting transport cages before they are taken back to producers or farms
  • Enforce legal limits on the amount of animals allowed in each cage to prevent overcrowding, which leads to poor animal health
  • Increase the traceability of animals back the production and distribution chain to track infections
  • Develop hygienic slaughtering and processing facilities and processes in wet markets (“Unprecedented widespread outbreaks,” 2005)

Continuous Improvements on Food Safety in China

China has committed to the enforcement of stronger legislative and institutional regulations on public health and food safety governance. This commitment has helped tackle some of the problems and challenges in managing the infrastructure of wet markets selling locally produced foods. There is tremendous opportunity in preserving traditional Chinese practices of local food production and distribution in the face of rising global trade.

Chinese wet markets have the potential to be brought up to par with international hygiene and food safety standards, while maintaining their support of locally produced food to enhance China’s food security. Rather than being replaced with supermarkets, wet markets can transform in order to be competitive. The unique shopping experience that wet markets offer in the can be offered in environments which provide high food safety standards. Indeed these standards are already being put into place.

Recent outbreaks of foodborne diseases from street food vendors in China inspired the implementation of HACCP to help prevent the spread of food-related pathogens and diseases. Five HACCP groups were established to apply these standardized safety principles to five different types of street food, including high-risk foods items such as poultry and red meat. HACCP was successful in drastically improving hygiene and food safety standards of street food, which led to the hazard analysis program to act as a model example for fresh markets. HACCP is now helping to decrease health risks connected to the distribution of fresh food in wet markets across China. In Hong Kong, the city’s health department has organize training courses on food safety and hazards analysis (Poto, 2011). As a result of these measures, the level of hygiene and food safety control has been greatly improved throughout the food industry. Continuous assistance from international programs, combined with advanced measures of food safety control on Chinese traditional wet markets, will become progressively more effective in raising the hygienic status of local fresh food markets. Although China’s initiative is commendable, current efforts need to continue. While it would be unrealistic to believe that all wet markets are now safe, most are safer than before. Education is a major factor, and one that will help enhance food safety in Hong Kong and China.

Lessons from the Application of HACCP

The improvements that HACCP promoted in Hong Kong and China’s wet markets can be achieved in other countries where local markets are prominent. For instance, Egypt, Thailand, Spain and Korea all have numerous wet markets depended on by food producers as a main channel of distribution, and by consumers for access to fresh food. Continued efforts to enhance food safety and hygiene in wet markets across the globe will also strengthen food security by generating greater accessibility to local food. Initiatives to improve food safety in developing countries are especially important because they create opportunities for local food producers and consumers to conduct trade in a clean and safe environment.

References

- FAO/WHO. “The experience of improving the safety of street food via international technical assistance.”

- FAO/WHO Global Forum of Food Safety Regulators. January 2002. Marrakech, Morocco. OIE/FAO/WHO. “Unprecedented widespread outbreaks of avian influenza.” Consultation on avian influenza and human health: risk reduction measures in producing, marketing and living with animals in Asia. July 2005. Malaysia.

- Poto, Margherita. 2011. Food and nano-food within the Chinese regulatory system: No need to have overregulation. European Journal of Law and Technology, 2(3).

- World Health Organization. (2004). Healthy marketplaces in the western pacific: Guiding future action. (pp. 1-37). Geneva, Switzerland: Retrieved from http://www.searo.who.int/LinkFiles/Publications_and_Documents_Healthy_Market_places_FINALversion.pdf

© Food Safety News
  • Paul_LK

    I spent a lot of time at wet markets
    while stationed in Asia from 1987 to 1989. As a food safety professional, I
    found them to be very interesting and took many pictures for training purposes.
    While I was in Hong Kong during 1988, there was a very large and serious
    pesticide poisoning episode from a bok choy type of vegetable from the Peoples
    Republic of China. I talked with a local Chinese woman who worked at the hotel
    where I stayed, and she said that these types of poisonings occasionally occurred.
    The incidents were attributed to the widespread and improper use of pesticides
    by the Chinese farmers. I imagine this situation has changed over the past
    twenty years.

    The lack of refrigeration and unavailability
    of ice was the most obvious deficiency that I observed in the Asian wet
    markets. On the positive side, the freshness of food was important to most of
    the shoppers, and the savvy shoppers were good at identifying the freshest
    foods. I was very impressed with some of the aquaria apparatuses used to keep
    fish alive for the ultimate freshness. I’m sure this also helped in preventing pathogen
    growth, though I questioned the quality of water used in some aquaria.

    With proper education and training of
    the vendors in HACCP, along with diligent enforcement by regulatory officials, the
    traditional wet markets offer many advantages for the local population.