Hung dry over wet markets: The Star columnist

In his commentary, the writer says that the confusion over wet markets and wildlife markets has led to xenophobia among some US leaders and the media, who are all calling for the closure of food resources in China.

A vendor sleeps while waiting for customers at the wet market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 10, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There's growing outrage in the West following a report that China is reopening its wet markets. Though erroneous, in the eyes of westerners, these places are inextricably associated with wild animal markets.

Most of the discontented have never been to a wet market, which is just a place for fresh produce. In fact, this is probably the first time they've even heard of the description.

So, when they stumble on the term "wet markets", their minds immediately race to the infamous Wuhan market where Covid-19 was first reported.

The news involving these wet markets have added fuel to the fire of China bashing, courtesy of the killer virus.

Wet markets are commonplace all over Asia, especially in South-East Asia, because consumers know the produce at these places is fresh.

Unlike the farmers markets in the West, wet markets in Asia mostly have wet floors, hence the name.

The climate in this region necessitates the use of copious amounts of ice to maintain food freshness, and coupled with the use of fresh water to keep the place constantly clean, wet markets can seem a chore to navigate.

Markets in the West, even those with street stalls, don't deal with live, fresh seafood. There are no tanks or tubs filled with live fishes, shellfish or crabs.

Basically, "fresh" sea food in the West comes dead. In fact, most times, prawns are already boiled even. This doesn't sit well with Asians in general, especially the Chinese.

Asians prefer wet markets over supermarkets for fresh seafood because the difference of their freshness and choices is stark.

In Hong Kong, most wet markets - located on the ground floor of flats - are clean, and they sell an impressive array of Asian seafood.

In China, I've even seen live stingrays, squids and octopuses in tubs, which isn't a sight here.

The largest choice of sea food in Malaysia can probably be found at Sabah's markets, which have fishes I've never seen before in peninsula wet markets.

Yes, I agree sanitary is a concern in wet markets all over Asia, especially at the poultry sections. The pong and poor hygiene in slaughtering chickens, for instance, needs overdue attention by the authorities in the wake of the pandemic.

It should be banned, like what Malaysia and Singapore have done.

But the bottom line is - wet markets are not animal markets. Most wet markets don't sell snakes, dogs, cats, wolf cubs or baby crocodiles.

And certainly, most mainland Chinese, and ethnic Chinese elsewhere, don't dine on these animals. In fact, as China becomes more affluent and tuned in with the times, there is growing pressure to ban dog meat because it's simply cruel and unacceptable.

It's poor argument when some Asians resort to the "culinary tradition" defence to justify their consumption of these animals. Pets are not food for human beings. It's uncivilised - period!

Thanks to some bizarre food shows on TV, the perception formed is that Asians consume a lot of exotic meat, which is furthest from the truth. So, likewise, not all westerners eat rabbit meat, pheasants or garden snails, either.

And Foie gras - the liver of duck or geese fattened by being force fed corn via a feeding tube - surely can't be staple food, too.

I've always enjoyed visiting wet markets in the Asian countries I've been to, because I like the feel and smell of these places. It's a meeting place for people who go about their lives and a melting pot of local culture and charm.

But young Asians prefer the cleaner and air-conditioned supermarkets, as they regard these outlets healthier and more sustainable.

Affluent Asians find supermarkets more comfortable and in line with their lifestyles. Besides, parking is also more organised than at the often-congested wet markets.

The supermarkets' ability to buy food produces in large volumes directly from farmers has also made their prices more attractive than those at wet markets.

According to a Euromonitor International report, supermarkets now account for about half of all grocery spending in China, going up about 36 per cent from 1995.

"Add in convenience stores and the like, and so-called modern grocery has about 68 per cent of China's retail wallet, giving wet markets less than a third.

"Still, that store-based spending is overwhelmingly concentrated in packaged, rather than fresh produce. Foreign retailers that once hoped to dominate China's staple goods sector such as Carrefour SA and Metro AG have struggled and sold out of local ventures - but wet markets are still going strong."

Research by N. Chamhuri and P.J. Batt, from Curtin University of Technology Perth, Western Australia, on Malaysians' preferred source for fresh meat in the Klang Valley, uncovered startling results.

Despite the increase in supermarkets and hypermarkets, traditional markets have ably coexisted with modern retail formats and remain the choice for fresh meat.

But Asian governments must clean up their wet markets, even if they aren't animal markets, since past virus outbreaks have been linked to these places, where the potential for zoonotic transmission (disease that can spread from animals to humans) is gravely higher.

What's deplorable is that the confusion over wet markets and wildlife markets has led to xenophobia among some US leaders, celebrities and the media, who are all calling for the closure of these food resources in China.

They have ignored, or missed, reports that since Jan 26, China has banned the trade and consumption of wild animals for food, but with news of wet markets being reopened, old pictures depicting the sale of these animal meats have been recycled as visuals to accompany the news reports.

The truth is, it's easier to buy wild animals online. Go figure.

And this may come as a surprise, but international wildlife trafficking is worth an estimated US$10 - 20 billion ($14.2 - $28 billion) annually, with the US a chief consumer of wildlife products (legal and illegal).

Yet, a poll commissioned by WildAid found that 80 per cent of Americans know little or nothing about illegal wildlife trade within the US.

Perhaps, after watching Joe Exotic in Tiger King on Netflix, Americans would know better, and be stunned to learn that there are more lions in the US than in the whole of Africa.

The writer is an opinion columnist with The Star. The paper is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 24 news media entities.

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