What is a wet market and why are they allowed to continue amid the coronavirus crisis?

The future of wet markets could be in doubt as the world deals with the global coronavirus pandemic, but some facilities have already re-opened in China.

A poultry seller with a live chicken at a wet market in Kowloon City, Hong Kong.

A poultry seller with a live chicken at a wet market in Kowloon City, Hong Kong. Source: Getty Images

China has reopened some of its 'wet markets' despite the live animal markets being the suspected origin of the coronavirus pandemic, raising concerns about public health and animal welfare.

There have long been questions about the future of the markets given their potential links to health emergencies. 

What exactly is a wet market?

Wet markets sell fresh food and produce - as opposed to 'dry' goods such as clothing - and some stock live animals such as chickens, as well as seafood and wild animals.

They are popular in China and while one in the city of Wuhan is thought to be the site of the COVID-19 outbreak, the World Health Organization says it doesn't know exactly how humans caught the virus.

Nicola Beynon from animal rights group Society International said the markets have not only existed in Asia, but also in Africa and South America.

"Wildlife trade is a multi-billion dollar business and wildlife markets, where live animals are for sale, is unfortunately prevalent in lots of places in the world," she told SBS News. 

A wet market in Shanghai, China
A wet market in Shanghai, China. Source: Getty Images

Social researcher Dr Siobhan O'Sullivan from the University of New South Wales said Australia previously operated wet markets.

"What happened in countries like Australia, over time the wet markets were shut down, abattoirs were centralised and then eventually moved out of the city," she said.

"We moved to what is referred to as 'box meat trade', where people buy animals already slaughtered and processed and just cook the meat. But of course, in a lot of countries, that's not the case. There is still the practice of slaughtering animals, perhaps at the time they are being purchased, or taking animals home." 

Why have wet markets been associated with disease?

The 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, known as SARS, was thought to have emerged from wet markets in China's Guangdong province.

The WHO said SARS was most likely originally an animal virus and a small number of cases may have occurred through animal to human transmission.

A market in Yau Ma Tei
Customers choose vegetables at a wet market in Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong. Source: South China Morning Post/Getty Images

A recent study into key predictors of virus spillover risk found threatened wildlife species (with reduced populations because of exploitation) potentially shared more viruses with humans. 

Research published in the Royal Society Proceedings B journal shows infectious diseases from wildlife have emerged at an increased pace in the past century. 

Why are wet markets allowed to continue?

Several petitions - addressed to US President Donald Trump and the United Nations - have been pushing for a ban on wet markets since the coronavirus outbreak, and have attracted thousands of signatures. 

But the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations said on 19 March the Chinese government could gradually reopen live poultry markets. Four have reopened in Guangzhou city.

The organisation said COVID-19 control measures had been put in place and the number of dealers and workers had been limited.

A dog in Hong Kong became infected with coronavirus and a tiger in New York has also tested positive. But the WHO said there was no evidence to indicate the disease can be caught from a pet.

Ms Beynon said: "We've known for a long time that wildlife markets are deadly to wild animals but what we now know is they are deadly to humans."

"If we want to prevent a future pandemic, we need to clamp down on wildlife trade and clamp down on it comprehensively." 

What has Australia said about wet markets?

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the future of overseas wet markets could be in doubt because they will pose a big challenge.

"We can clearly see the great risks to the health and wellbeing of the rest of the world as a result of these types of places and facilities," he said.

"Now, I'm not making any criticisms of anyone, I'm not making any cultural references or anything like that." 

"I mean, there are all sorts of different countries and we all live different ways, but it is important [to note] that when you're handling these types of food supplies and how they are provided to the public and how they're treated, these things can be very dangerous." 

Mr Morrison has urged the WHO to turn its attention to the markets' risks.

"We don't have them here and there is a good reason," he said. 

Liberal MP Jason Wood praised Mr Morrison for showing leadership on the issue.

Mr Wood, the Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, said he wanted all wildlife wet markets shut down because they can cause pandemics. 

Labor's multicultural affairs spokesman Andrew Giles has previously publicly criticised the federal government for "fear-mongering" over the topic. But Mr Wood has hit back at Labor for trying to turn the wet market debate into a question of racism.

What does the future hold for wet markets?

Jessie Xiao from Sydney's Haymarket Chamber of Commerce has attended wet markets in Hong Kong and said live poultry wasn't typical at the stalls. 

She said despite the popularity of the markets in Asians countries, after the pandemic she expects to see some differences in hygiene standards. 

"I'm sure a lot of changes will be made," she said. 

But Dr O'Sullivan said changing culturally significant habits can take a while.

"We all have our food taboos and our cultural practices that matter to us a great deal, so all around the world, changing cultural practice around food is very difficult. It takes a long time," she said. 

"But I think also the challenge is enforcement."

The WHO has told SBS News it doesn't advocate to prohibit wet markets because they are a source of livelihood for many and offer food security.

In a statement, the WHO said there was a need for regulation to reduce the risk of disease transmission and has previously argued that with good hygiene and adequate facilities, it is possible to safely sell food at wet markets.

The organisation also suggested the selling of live animals could be held in a separate space and said the Chinese government implemented stronger hygiene standards at wet markets in February.

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6 min read
Published 9 April 2020 at 6:59pm
By Stephanie Corsetti