Published: 01:59, February 11, 2020 | Updated: 08:05, June 6, 2023
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What the pleasures and perils of fresh food teach us
By Richard Cullen

When I was growing up in the 1960s in a country town in Australia, about 200 kilometers from Melbourne, every Thursday was “market day”. The stockyards, close to the rail line, would be full of cattle and sheep for sale and shipment. There was also a very large permanent market, or “Mart”, as it was called, in the town center. All goods on sale were second-hand. You could choose between upright pianos, home furnishings, farmers’ tools, toys and books, and much more. 

On every market day, there was also a large offering of live produce, mainly chickens, ducks and rabbits, at the Mart. You could choose and purchase on the spot. The vendors would also kill and clean as you waited, if you wished, or you could do this later at home yourself, if you preferred. 

Country butchers in Australia at that time would regularly keep a shed and field nearby, outside of town, where they could keep livestock, then kill and prepare their own meat for sale that week in their shops.

All of this had been going on in much the same way for around 100 years. Before refrigerators became popular, this was the safest way to ensure freshness and reduce the risk of food contamination before consumption. After household refrigerators became common in the 1950s, these methods of food provision continued, however. Habit played a part in this, but buying meat that was freshly killed was also felt to enhance the taste of all types of meat, especially compared to frozen meat. 

Given China’s huge population, the relevant transaction levels involving such produce are, comparatively, exceptionally high. This has patently increased the risk that pathogens — which may prove to be infectious — will find an opportunity to pass from animals to humans

Apart from rabbits, wild meat was rarely sold this way. In fact, human consumption of kangaroo meat was still banned at this time. It was then used only for manufacturing pet food. The abattoirs that did this operated under reduced sanitary standards because the end use was not human consumption. 

Here, though, is the clue to why retail, on-the-spot market killing of live animals for consumption was stopped across Australia some decades ago. It may have provided a fresh taste, but the food contamination risk was, in due course, seen to be simply too high for the public good. 

It is conceivable that, apart from the risk of some regular food poisoning, disease-causing pathogens passed, from time to time, from animal to man through this consumption, and occasionally such diseases may have been infectious. Any transmission that could have occurred would almost always be highly localized, 

however. At that time, travel opportunities were sharply limited. A trip to Melbourne might happen just a few times a year for most, and interstate — let alone overseas — travel was largely unthinkable for the majority of the population. 

Looking back, we can see that, around the world, developed countries, like Australia, have been conspicuously fortunate: They increasingly established comprehensive health and safety controls on the killing of live animals for human consumption well before the era of mass travel — including mass international travel — began. 

This has not been the case in China. It’s extraordinarily rapid development has seen mass internal travel and, later, international travel each become the norm for many millions of Chinese each year within a generation. This rapid progress has also meant that the demand for freshly killed meat has increased swiftly, too. Making matters still more hazardous in China is a significant, long-standing desire to enjoy what is commonly regarded as wild meat, so that non-domesticated livestock, including snakes and other creatures, remain on offer in many markets across China. 

Given China’s huge population, the relevant transaction levels involving such produce are, comparatively, exceptionally high. This has patently increased the risk that pathogens — which may prove to be infectious — will fi nd an opportunity to pass from animals to humans. When one adds to this mix the very high levels of internal and external long-distance traveling found across the Chinese population, the massinfection risk is distinctly elevated. 

The paramount source of this health hazard is, above all, eating and marketing habits going back many, many years. What we know about the origins of the SARS epidemic and what we know about this latest virus epidemic confi rm this. 

The task of changing these deep-seated eating habits in China is highly challenging. It will likely require immense political and regulatory eff orts. Both the reasons and the penetrating need for commencing this project are now, however, very clear indeed. Once the worst of the current epidemic is brought under control could be the very best time — while the grim consequences of tolerating this evident food-chain risk remain freshly in mind — to commence this singularly important mission.

The author is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily