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Wet markets: Needed for food security but change needed for safety

Eliminate the risk source not the food source.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created extensive scrutiny of wet markets as information points to a wet market being the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is causing the COVID-19 disease. The scrutiny of wet markets is appropriate as one considers interventions that reduce the opportunity for a risk source and the transmission of a zoonotic disease; an infectious disease caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites that spreads between animals and humans. Importantly as one considers interventions one also needs to understand the history, culture, and importance of wet markets in feeding the world, especially in some of the least developed parts of the world. And for those involved in food production, feeding consumers globally a safe, nutritious, sustainable, affordable, and an available supply of food is why we exist.

wet market.jpgA wet market, for those that have not had the pleasure of seeing and shopping in, can range from small to large markets. Available items range from meats, fish, eggs, dairy, fruits, and vegetables, to prepared cooked and hot foods. Also, the dry market part includes home supplies, clothes, and items that meet most any need. Historically, often, animals are live and slaughtered on-site and then sold as parts pending the consumer’s selection. More recently, through improved sanitary practices, the slaughtering is in an area removed from the market. The range of animals can be broad from the more common pigs, chickens, and cattle, to the more unique bats, lizards, and frogs. Yes, in many there are an amazing array of delicacies including ants, larvae, crickets, scorpions, and snakes. Wet markets can be the most fascinating place for those desiring consumer choices.

One might advise that elimination of the wet market is the right thing to do. Eliminating wet markets would eliminate a major source of new or exotic diseases. Simple solution, not really! Wet markets are the main source of food for many. Countless people buy their food each morning and evening from a wet market to feed their families.   

Ponder some reality check points of real life situations as one considers the food system: refrigerator … yes, freezer … yes, automobile … yes, stove or oven to cook … yes, retail food store within a short drive … yes, and money to buy food for a week … yes. Yes, you are fortunate! Now what if you replace each ‘yes’ with a ‘no’. No refrigerator, no freezer, no automobile, no stove or oven, no retail food store within a short drive, and no money to buy food for a week. For the reality check, if you are in the ‘no’ segment of consumers, you have a high probability that you buy your food at a local wet market, especially in Asia, and you are amongst millions, maybe billions, of individuals globally. Thus, you may not be pleased when the fortunate decide to eliminate your daily food supply source that is the wet market. While the fortunate drive to their nearest food retail store, you walk or bicycle to your nearest wet market.   

Wet markets have today, and likely for decades to come, a critical role in feeding part of the 7.7 billion consumers globally. These consumers, as all consumers, deserve a safe food supply source. Thus, let us consider interventions that eliminate the risk source but not the food source.  

In wet markets the primary risk source tends to be predominantly exotic wild animals that are live and slaughtered on site when consumers make their food purchase decision. Note, live is a sign of freshness in a wet market. Elimination of the risk source without eliminating the food supply source means a targeted approach to addressing the risk, the risk being the exotic wild animals. Governmental efforts need to be focused on the risk and intervene to remove the risk through better regulation and management. 

Wet markets have a historical and cultural role in societies. Taking a day’s income and dividing the money for the basics of food, shelter, clothing, and education are daily norms for many. The norms include walking to the local market, buying fresh foods, cooking over the wood fires, and proudly feeding one’s family. Extended family and neighbors gathering for cooking and eating together are daily routines.

Through the decades efforts have been made to close wet markets but often these efforts have failed. The failure likely is due to there being no viable alternative food supply source for the locals, those relying on the wet market, those living in the developing world. It is not realistic for individuals to have to walk or ride a bike 10 kilometers twice a day to buy food, as one has no refrigeration for storage, or not enough money for purchasing a week’s food supply needs. The elderly individuals are often those with the least, thus the 60 or 90-year-old is even less likely to change their way of life, in part due to culture, but just as likely due to lack of resources. 

The suggested reasoned approach is to act to intervene and eliminate the highest risk sources, the exotic wild animals. Further, work to ensure animal slaughter is in an area removed from the food purchasing location. Also, continue to enhance sanitary and food hygiene practices. Then, over time work to add refrigeration in the markets and even in the homes. Work to build the infrastructure of facilities and refrigeration, or total cold chain logistics channels. To be successful, one must recognize the realities of history, culture and resources and evolve the food systems over time.

The challenge of change can be daunting, but realistic steps over time can be achievable. Understanding history, adjusting to culture, and by acting collaboratively, change can happen over time. Start today and eliminate the risk source not the food source. Wet markets are needed for food security, but they also need to be changed for safety, by eliminating that subset of high-risk food sources in the markets.      

Now, let’s go buy our meal at our local wet market, and with the elimination of the risk source, how about we enjoy the food source delicacies of ________, you fill in the blank with your imagination and choice! Working together we can provide for all consumers globally a safe, nutritious, sustainable, affordable, and an available supply of food. We can cherish delivering on our ‘why’ in life.

P.S.: For full disclosure, yes, I have been at and have shopped at local wet markets when living in Asia. My extended family shops and buys at the local wet market daily, located about 1.5 kilometers from home. The nearest major retail food store is about 15 kilometers from home. The local wet market is a critical part of the food supply chain daily.     

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