is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.
Clamour to ban all of China’s wild animal markets is neo-imperialist thinking from self-interested campaigners and would only drive the trade underground. Regulate them better, sure, but drop the ‘we westerners know best’ BS.
Of all the sensitivities surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, nothing is more culturally divisive than “wet markets,” such as those in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which have been branded as breeding grounds for super viruses destined to ravage humanity, each more deadly than its predecessor.
Among the various conservationists, vegans, animal protection, zoo and animal welfare groups looking for global ban on the commercial sale of bush meat, Animal Equality, a campaign group in the UK, wants the United Nations to insist governments close all “wet markets” worldwide because, they say, these places are “an immediate threat to public health.”
Of course, the campaigners adopt the view, without presenting any other possibility, that the Covid-19 virus emerged from a “wet market” and this, they seem to think, is all the evidence required.
Their website video, dramatically branded “Undercover” even though it is nothing of the sort, runs clips of various animals, mostly chickens –frankly, it’s hard to be certain– being plucked and chopped up in unidentified markets around Asia.
This “investigation” reveals no hidden terrors, no animals screaming in agony and no site that any curious traveler who has visited an Asian market with an open mind would not have encountered.
From the information posted online, the video was filmed from China to India, with Vietnam in between. There are nearly 1.4bn people in India, 1.45bn in China and 97mn in Vietnam.
So there must be thousands of wet markets in that vast swathe of the planet, selling fresh meat to more than half the world’s population. Sure, enough with the weird wild animals maybe, but shut them down and what are people supposed to eat?
I’ve eaten crickets, worms, beetles and other delights at Asian wet markets, and while those are a tasty snack, they are not a patch on crocodile, a cuddly prehistoric reptile which also needs protection, according to the campaigners.
Animal Equality, whose cosy London headquarters is less than a mile from the UK’s most popular “wet market” at Borough where foodies and tourists browse the various outdoor seafood and butcher stalls and pay seven pounds for grilled wild venison on brioche on Saturday mornings, are strong on emotive language.
Among the various website claims is one that wet markets earn their name not from the simple fact that the markets are sluiced and washed down every day at the end of trading, but, according to Animal Equality, “from the blood that soaks the stalls’ floors after the produce is killed for purchase”.
Let’s not over-egg this particular (blood) pudding. The outdoor markets of hundreds of towns and cities of Europe are often a smelly, chaotic, noisy riot of the weird and wonderful, until about midday most days, when having shut for business, they are hosed down, leaving the residual smell of all that went on there earlier in the day. They too, are wet markets, but no-one is calling for them to close.
Anyone visited Smithfields, London’s meat market (that was once described as a “horrid abomination” in the 19th Century, full of “cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence… [and] danger”) or its fish equivalent, Billingsgate, recently?
It’s only the “other” wet markets. You know, the “foreign” ones that sell food we don’t eat in the UK or Europe.
It’s cultural snobbery –maybe something worse– attempting to push animal rights by exploiting now-widespread fears of another pandemic. As long as those animals are in China. Or India. Just not here.
While it’s now officially illegal –and so more likely to be prosecuted– to sell and eat wild animals in China, strangely it’s simple and absolutely fine to buy and sell meat from exotic animals in the UK. There are no petitions to avoid or protest perils to face when shopping online (lockdown, obvs) and you can eat your way through the alphabet of weird wildlife, from alpaca to zebra with python and squirrel somewhere in between.
Sure, all markets selling freshly killed meat for human consumption should be expected to stick to tight hygiene regulations and these should be rigorously enforced. But before trying to scare people about the origins of strange viruses or plug into “poor little puddy-tat” guilt then careful consideration also needs to be given to the food’s role in culture and what, if any, are the viable alternatives.
The idea of eating chicken reared indoors on a closely managed diet of who-knows-what and antibiotics would make our foreign neighbors shudder. Yet it is the most popular meat in Britain. It’s cheaper than beef or lamb to produce and has worked its way up our scale of preference because in a multiethnic society, most cultures will happily eat it.
Elsewhere, Western delicacies of sheep’s brains, frogs, snails, pig offal, calf pancreas and exploded goose livers would have diners in some nations racing for the bucket, but millions of people happily munch away on these strange dishes too, because they like the taste and it’s a culturally acceptable thing to do.
So please, enough with the hysterical “wet markets” clamour because it’s a narrow minded self-serving scare-mongering.
The truism has it that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. For many, the way to a nation’s soul is through its markets.