Wet markets, a dominant feature in Asia’s food shopping landscape, have been spotlighted ever since Covid-19 was said to emerge from a market in China that peddled an assortment of wildlife – a case in isolation as most wet markets sell farmed livestock and fresh fruit and vegetables, among others.
The call by prominent people who live on the other side of the world (and are not in touch with the Asian shopping culture), to shut down wet markets may be a harsh one. As Simon Lee, of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told The Economist: “Chinese prefer to buy their food fresh . . . Western culture is more about frozen food.”
In Asia, despite the shift in food retail to supermarkets, still up to 80% of meat and vegetables are purchased at wet markets, because the produce is fresh and well-priced. This is important in these times as consumers contend with lockdowns and new daily regimes, rising unemployment, and deteriorating earnings.
Besides, more households are expected to fall into lower-income segments. A recent Euromonitor report titled How will consumer markets evolve after Coronovirus? shows a significant uptick in demand for fresh food.
Wet markets in Asia are popular because of their proximity to residential areas, prices here are negotiable and they support local farmers. The solution may not then be to close wet markets but to raise red flags as to how wet markets in Asia should evolve in tandem with the shopping culture.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is working on a proposal to recommend suspending the sale of live wild mammals in marketplaces, but not farmed livestock. China has already placed a permanent ban on the sale of all wild live animals at its markets.
One Health Poultry Hub, Bangladesh Head, Prof Ahasanul Hoque told Asian Agribiz that the focus should be on improving wet market infrastructure rather than phasing them out. In Bangladesh, the main concern is hygiene. Prof Hoque suggests improving infrastructure to make cleaning easier.
He recommends a rest day with proper decontamination of the slaughter area in a market, use of personal protection equipment by vendors and provision of adequate water supply for cleaning and disinfection. Also, provision should be made for the proper disposal of livestock and other waste.
“Many households still do not have refrigerators and freezers and prefer to buy their meat needs daily,” Edwin Chen, President of the Pork Producers Federation of the Philippines told Asian Agribiz. He added that wet markets in the country are regulated, and no live animal sale and slaughter happens in them. Patrick Ty, Regional Sales Director for Big Dutchman Asia believes that with forward integration Filipino consumers can avail of safe meat.
In Indonesia, wet markets can become a ‘repository’ of diseases because almost all food products especially those from livestock are sold there, according to Alfred Kompudu, National Technical Advisor – Commercial Poultry at FAO’s Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases in Indonesia.
“The risk of the spread of zoonotic diseases is high since generally, biosecurity, biosafety, hygiene and sanitation principles are ignored,” he told Asian Agribiz. “Live poultry sales and on-site slaughter should be prohibited, and a good cold chain system should be introduced.”
Indian consumers sensitized to issues of hygiene after the Covid-19 pandemic are pushing for better standards in wet markets. One Health Poultry Hub, India Head, Prof Raman Muthusamy told Asian Agribiz that the government introduced guidelines for ‘clean meat’ in wet markets in 2018. Covid-19 has made it easier to implement these guidelines.
In Malaysia and Singapore, despite being more progressive economies in the region, shopping for fresh produce at wet markets is common. Both countries have done away with live animal slaughter at wet markets.
Singapore took it one step further during the pandemic, by getting wet market stall owners online via social media livestream. In Malaysia, the government is restructuring wet markets into wet and dry zones, but more is needed in terms of health and safety monitoring and installation of hygiene protocols and waste disposal.
Sarah Boumphrey, Global Research Director of Euromonitor International said retail restrictions in place during the pandemic have fast-tracked the shift to digital distribution and a rise in online, click & collect, frictionless retail and direct-to-consumer (D2C), prompting new strategies in the retail value chain.
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