There seems to be no end in sight: over the past two weeks Chinese authorities have fished nearly 15,000 dead pigs out of the Huangpu River in Shanghai and nearby Jiaxing, and no one knows exactly what is killing these animals.
The toll has reached over 10,000 pig carcasses in Shanghai and nearly 5,000 further upstream in Jiaxing, one of the largest pig breeding bases in the Yangtze River Delta. Lab samples of the dead pigs showed evidence of porcine circovirus (PCV), a virus that causes wasting and mortality in piglets, but is not dangerous to humans. Yet, at the same time, breeders are denying an epidemic among pigs from the region. Didi Tang from the Associated Press reported on other rumors circulating the Chinese media. The increase in pig mortalities may be caused by farmers feeding their animals small amounts of arsenic to make their skins glossy. The vice mayor of Jiaxing reportedly claims that the majority of carcasses are piglets who have succumbed to the cold. This theory was quickly denounced by critics who noted that the majority of carcasses were actually of adult hogs and that this year’s winter has not been particularly harsh.
Various news sources report that farmers and breeders from the region likely disposed of the bodies in the Huangpu, a cheaper method than following Chinese regulations, which require that the carcasses of diseased animals are burned or buried. This river is also the main source of drinking water for more than 20 percent of Shanghai’s 23 million people. Government authorities maintain that the water quality remains unaffected by the mass animal die-off and safe to drink. Yet, China’s history of withholding information during severe health crises – SARS, bird flu, and the 2008 melamine milk scandal – has made the public wary.
In response, the government has taken some punitive measures. Eight Jiaxing- based farms have been fined for improperly disposing of dead animals by dumping them in the river, and 46 people have been jailed for selling pork meat from the diseased pigs. However, these short-term solutions do not address greater governmental issues, such as adherence to regulations on hog farming and animal disease control.
Even though PCV is not dangerous to human health, this scandal is affecting one of China’s favorite food products. Pork makes up more than 60 percent of Chinese meat products. Breeders raise more than 7 million pigs annually in Jiaxing alone. Industrial hog farming in China tends to favor a “farrow-to-finish” system, meaning that pigs are bred and raised in a confined area until slaughter. These operations are usually pig-dense, which makes quarantine of sick animals difficult. As a result, over the past decade China has dealt with a number of devastating viral outbreaks in its hog population. Viruses, such as PCV, can easily spread to other farms, thus opening the door to countrywide epidemics, viral mutations, and consequently emerging zoonotic diseases that may seriously impact human health. Despite these issues, large-scale operations are the preferred method of hog farming in China due to land usage issues.