Bay of pigs

As carcasses float down the Huangpu, one pork entrepreneur is on the up

Bay of pigs

Dead meat: around 14,000 pig carcasses have been found in Shanghai’s Huangpu River

Thousands of dead pigs floating down a river might not seem like a laughing matter. At last count, at least 14,000 carcasses have drifted down the Huangpu, a major water source for Shanghai.

But China’s netizens, long accustomed to food safety scares, are doing their best to see the funny side of things.

One quip doing the rounds on Sina Weibo, picked up by the Sinocism blog, imagines a contest between China’s two largest cities. “We Beijingers are the most fortunate, we can open the window and have free cigarettes,” says the Beijinger, in a reference to air pollution. But the man from Shanghai retorts: “That’s nothing. We turn on our taps and we can have pork chop soup!”

Another joke, picked up by CNN, shows the sense of resignation about the endless list of food scandals that have plagued the country.

“Since when is finding dead, rotting pigs in a major river not a public health problem? Answer: when it happens in China.”

Incredibly, where the pigs came from, why they died and how they suddenly showed up in the river, has still not been identified.

Inevitably, suspicions have been raised that some sort of epidemic broke out among local pigs – with farmers dumping the infected ones to contain its spread.

Jiaxing, a pig-farming centre in Zhejiang province just outside Shanghai, is getting most of the attention (it produces 4.6 million pigs a year). The authorities there held a news conference last week, at which the deputy secretary of its Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Bureau insisted that an adequate disposal system is in place, reports CBN.

But it was also mentioned that villagers sometimes throw dead animals into the river due to a belief that keeping a dead pig is unlucky.

CBN then spoke to local villagers. Asked why they hadn’t got rid of the pigs in the designated way, they replied that nobody had come to collect the carcasses, despite calls requesting it.

Perhaps. But reports in the Jiaxing Daily earlier in March also quoted one pig farmer as saying that “when things are busy,” he and his fellow farmers don’t bother calling the local vet to take the corpses away and just “throw them away where we can”.

In the summer the smell of rotting meat is sometimes so strong that villagers cannot open their windows, the farmer added.

According to the New York Times, other villagers have told local media that dumping surged after a crackdown on trade in dead and diseased animals. With no black-market traders to collect the dead pigs, the next option is to chuck them in rivers. Others even suggest that farmers have been feeding their pigs small amounts of arsenic to make their skins look shinier, but with the side-effect of increasing the mortality rate.

Despite the fevered speculation, the authorities seem reluctant to speak publicly about the case. Not one top official nor any of the heads of government agencies dealing with the environment, health or agriculture has made public comments, the New York Times notes.

The food scandals are unlikely to dent the huge demand for pork, which accounted for 64% of meat produced in China in 2010, reports the Asahi Shimbun.

What is a little more likely is that better-off consumers will be more cautious about where they shop for it. Chen Sheng, chairman of Guangdong Yihao Food Company, hopes that this will be good for his business, which has tried to differentiate itself by emphasising the provenance of its pork. Chen says that customers have been receptive to his ‘clean food’ sales network and a marketing strategy that shifted away from the taste of the meat toward more of a focus on its quality.

During the (relatively frequent) scares in which the additive clenbuterol is discovered in pig stock, Yihao’s meat sells out every day, reports Global Entrepreneur. Yihao now has 500 outlets in Guangdong and has made a push into Shanghai.

Press coverage of Yihao’s growth has also mentioned Chen’s academic background, with the view that it is unusual for a graduate of Peking University to get involved in the meat business. Pig farming in places like Jiaxing is often a way for the elderly to supplement their incomes, for instance.

The stigma of working with pigs has also made recruitment difficult for Chen. He tried hiring fresh graduates but many of his new employees soon left.

“Most of them were not retained due to too much pressure from public opinion. Some people say that a farmer is more likely to get married than a butcher,” Chen noted.

But if China’s food safety reputation is to improve, the authorities will hope that entrepreneurs like Chen prove a success in growing their businesses.

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