Last week, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the Huangpu River, which supplies drinking water to Shanghai’s 23 million residents. As of Tuesday evening, sanitation workers have retrieved nearly 6,000 carcasses from the river. The municipal authorities insist that the city’s water supply has not been contaminated, but they did admit that the dead pigs have tested positive for the PCV virus (which causes a sometimes fatal pig disease) as well as other pathogens, including foot and mouth disease (FMD), swine fever, hog cholera, and blue-ear pig disease. Initial investigations have also identified Jiaxing, a city in the neighboring Zhejiang province, as the origin of the dead pigs.
This incident in Shanghai is eerily similar to a Bible story in which demons entered a herd of swine and as a result, about 2,000 swine were drowned. While the pigs certainly didn’t drown, a strong case can be made that undesirable forces—unresponsive regulators and immoral villagers—are indeed responsible for dumping of several thousand pigs in the Huangpu River.
Ensuring a steady supply of low-priced and safe pork is an important component of China’s food security and is a major contributor to its social-economic stability. Pork is the most produced and consumed meat in China. In 2011 alone, China produced more than 50 million metric tons of pork, accounting for nearly half of the worldwide pork production. Further, Jiaxing is a major pork supplier for Hong Kong and Shanghai. In 2012, 7.78 million pigs were raised annually in the city, which is nearly one-quarter of all pigs raised in Zhejiang province. Pork is so important that some joked that CPI should stand for China pork index instead of consumer price index. According to a report published by the official local newspaper Jiaxing Daily, in some areas, the total pig housing area is larger than the total living area for people. Raising pigs in high densities not only results in the discharge of pollutants amount exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment, but also facilitates the swine pathogen transmission. Indeed, the city’s Bureau of Commerce noted in a report that “a large number of piglets died of epidemics after the 2012 spring festival.” The local newspaper also reported many deaths of hogs in Jiaxing since January 2013. From January to February, an average of 300 pigs died daily. Normally, pigs that have died from disease are not sold, but buried. Seeking to recoup their losses, however, some unscrupulous pig farmers have sold problematic carcasses to slaughterhouses, which would harvest pork from such carcasses. Between January 2009 and November 2011, a slaughterhouse in Jiaxing reportedly slaughtered 77,000 dead pigs and sold them for 8.65 million yuan ($1.4 million).
As the illicit trade of dead diseased pigs has become rampant in the past few years, the Ministry of Public Security has kicked off a nationwide campaign cracking down on gangs involved in the marketing of sick pigs. In one operation last year, police in Jiaxing reportedly arrested 12 suspects and confiscated nearly 12 tons of unsafe pork meat. During the celebration of the Lunar Chinese New Year in February, the police reportedly stepped up efforts to rid the market of tainted pork meat. In absence of collaboration from other departments, however, these well-intended efforts led to unintended outcomes: farmers simply dumped the large number of unmarketable dead pigs into the local river, which happens to be upstream from Shanghai.
Since these crimes have been committed after the melamine powder scandal, one might wonder why such food safety problems continue unabated despite tightened government regulation. Indeed, the Food Safety Law, which went into effect in 2009, aimed at providing a legal basis for strengthening food safety regulation “from the production line to the dining table.” Yet, as I noted in my recent book Governing Health in Contemporary China, the law maintains the fragmented regulation model with the departments of health, quality supervision, agriculture, public security, and industry and commerce all having a say in overseeing the food safety issues. This fragmented regulatory structure exacerbates what I call “buck-passing polity”, which not only makes coordination and information sharing difficult, but also encourages shirking and buck-passing in regulatory enforcement. It was joked in China that “six ministries were unable to regulate a pig.”
In view of the malaise in China’s buck-passing polity, the recent decision to consolidate food safety bodies into a ministerial-level General Administration of Food and Drug is a meaningful and important step toward addressing the fragmented regulation problem and building a unified and authoritative agency for food safety control. But as my colleague Liz Economy indicated in her new blog post, China lacks the supporting institutions (e.g., rule of law and official accountability) for regulating its food safety, without which China’s regulatory capacity building is like, to quote Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath, “sailors who must repair their ship at sea, never able to put in to dry dock to build from solid ground.”