The Salt
11:50 pm
Tue May 7, 2013

Rat 'Mutton' And Bird Flu: Strange Days For Meat Eaters In Shanghai

Originally published on Thu May 9, 2013 8:43 am

The past couple of months have been unsettling ones for meat eaters in Shanghai.

In March, more than 16,000 dead pigs showed up in a stretch of the Huangpu River — a main source of the city's drinking water.

Local officials insisted both the water and the city's pork supply were safe, but they never explained exactly how the pigs died or how they ended up in the river. One working theory was that farmers upstream in neighboring Zhejiang province dumped the dead pigs after officials there cracked down on the practice of selling diseased pork to local markets.

On China's increasingly irreverent social media, some people tried to look on the bright side and suggested that Shanghai's river had essentially become a giant bowl of pork soup.

Soon afterward, another, far more serious meat problem emerged in this city of 23 million. The H7N9 virus showed up in live fowl in Shanghai's fresh meat and produce markets. The government shut down live poultry sellers and killed more than 100,000 chickens, ducks and other birds. One apartment complex downtown even penned off a handful of black swans, warning residents to keep their distance just in case.

The virus has killed 13 people in Shanghai, home to nearly half of all the fatal cases in China. Scientists say so far, the virus appears to be transmitted from birds to people, and there's no clear evidence of sustainable human-to-human transmission, which could spark a pandemic.

Some city restaurants, including a Sichuanese place where I order Kung Pao chicken, stopped serving chicken, but many others continue to stock it. On May 1, a national holiday, a KFC on Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main shopping street, was jammed at lunchtime.

"I'm not worried," said a man named Yang as he considered his New Orleans chicken burger. "It's common knowledge that the virus will be killed under high temperature. So judging from existing reports, it is safe to eat chicken."

As for mutton, well, that came into question last week after police announced that they had busted a crime ring that had passed off more than $1 million worth of rat and other small mammal meat as mutton. The gang allegedly used additives to spice up rat, fox and mink meat to sell in markets in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province since 2009.

The arrests were part of a nationwide crackdown that netted more than 900 suspects and more than 20,000 tons of fake or inferior meat.

Following some of Shanghai's food safety problems, Ministry of Harmony, an English-language satire site, issued a fake news report about city officials encouraging residents to eat more healthfully. The slogan for Shanghai's new campaign: "Go Vegan If You Want To Live."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Health officials are hoping that we are not seeing the early signs of a global pandemic. For now, the focus is on China, where a new bird flu strain has emerged. It's known as H7N9. A new death is being reported there this morning, bringing the death toll in this current outbreak to 32. Many of those deaths have occurred in China's second-largest city, Shanghai, and that's where we begin our coverage, with NPR's Frank Langfitt. He found residents who seemed to be taking the outbreak in stride.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Every morning here at Xiang Ming High School there's a nurse named Zhang Hong. She stands at the gate in a white lab coat and she watches the students come in. Students, a lot of them are wearing a track suit - it's kind of a like school uniform - and many of them are dragging big roll bags full of books.

ZHANG HONG: (Through translator) If a student feels uncomfortable, we give them a check-up. If their temperature is over 100, we take them to the hospital to see a doctor.

LANGFITT: Zhang says she finds two or three students a day with temperatures but so far none with the virus. And she's not that worried about it.

HONG: (Through translator) This time around the bird flu is not very infectious and it's not as serious as SARS.

LANGFITT: SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, struck South China in late 2002. It eventually infected more than 8,000 people in 32 countries and killed more than 700 worldwide. So far, H7N9 has only infected about 130 people, mostly just here in China. But it could turn out to be much more lethal. At the moment its death rate is twice that of SARS. Scientists found H7N9 in birds in outdoor markets. Shanghai responded by shutting down live poultry sales and killing more than 100,000 chickens, ducks and other fowl.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)

LANGFITT: Even in this apartment complex where I'm standing right now, managers have penned off a group of black swans on the off chance they become infected.

Some restaurants have stopped serving chicken but people continue to eat it. At a KFC on Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main shopping street, tables are jammed at lunchtime. A man named Yang, who works for a computer chip maker, considers his New Orleans chicken burger.

YANG: (Through translator) I'm not worried. It's common knowledge that the virus will be killed under high temperature. So judging by existing reports, it's safe to eat chicken.

LANGFITT: Out on the street, Zhang, a 40-year-old office administrator, wears a surgical mask and has sworn off chicken. But she says officials have responded better to this virus than they did to SARS.

ZHANG: (Through translator) It seems only after SARS had already spread all around the country that the government started to take some action. Now Shanghai's response is fairly quick. After a few cases were discovered, a news conference was held.

LANGFITT: And not everyone is satisfied. Last week the daughter of a couple infected by H7N9 crashed a press conference to question officials about her father's treatment. She hadn't seen her dad in nearly a month. Officials escorted her out before she could address them. The worry now is H7N9 might adapt and spread easily from person to person. Leo Poon, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, says the virus already has a couple of key mutations.

LEO POON: These two are quite important, and that may hint that the virus is trying to adapt into humans. I mean like colleagues all over the world who who work with influenza virus, they are all very concerned about it. Of course we hope that this will not be another possibility of having a pandemic, but then who knows?

LANGFITT: Back at the KFC, Wang Chao, a recent college grad, says he's cut back on his chicken eating. And as long as the virus only spreads from birds to people, he's not too concerned. Human to human transmission would be a different story.

WANG CHAO: (Foreign language spoken)

LANGFITT: If that really happens, he says, I would be really worried. And so would everyone else. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.