GUANGZHOU, China (Reuters) - Scorpions scamper in bowls, water snakes coil in tanks and cats whine in cramped cages, waiting to be slaughtered, skinned and served for dinner.
Welcome to the Qingping market in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where everything from turtles to insects are sold alongside fowl and freshly caught fish.
An outbreak of the SARS virus in 2002 resulted in a local gourmet favorite — the civet — being banished to the black market. The raccoon-like animal was blamed for spreading SARS, which infected 8,000 people globally and killed 800.
But exotic wildlife and squalor have returned to the Qingping market, making health officials worried that another killer virus could emerge.
“We face similar threats from other viruses and such epidemics can happen because we continue to have very crowded markets in China,” said Lo Wing-lok, an infectious disease expert in Hong Kong.
“Even though official measures are in place, they are not faithfully followed. We are not talking about just civet cats, but all animals,” he added.
Ever since Severe Respiratory Disease Syndrome (SARS) virus emerged in China, authorities have fought to rectify the country’s image and clean up it’s market.
Civets, which are a delicacy in southern China, are now banned for sale and consumption, and a nine-storey traditional medicine plaza has replaced Qingping’s wild animal market.
“The market is much different now,” said He Zhiquan, an official from Guangdong’s foreign affairs office.
“Civet cats are forbidden, and sanitation is an important issue. Most live animals are sold on the city’s outskirts. You can see it’s more of a normal market now.”
Propaganda posters such as “Everyone should honor the policy of paying attention to product safety”, hang everywhere at Qingping.
Still, sights abound that would send even the most ardent carnivores running.
In a dark shop near the new medicine mall, feces and urine drip like goo through stacked cages of squawking chickens and meowing cats.
“The Qingping market is dirty,” said a Guangzhou-born taxi driver, surnamed Mo. “It’s dirty because it’s old, and the government is unwilling to put up enough money to fix it.”
In wealthy Guangzhou, rising incomes and fear of diseases are sending well-heeled consumers to supermarkets in search of packaged and branded goods.
Yet outside of China’s glitzy marquee cities of Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, traditional wet markets still account for the bulk of fresh food sales in China.
“The concept of buying food once a week and putting it in your fridge doesn’t really exist in China yet. It’s produced today, bought today, and eaten later today,” said John Chapple, general manager for China-based food analysis laboratory Sino Analytica.
And dangerous tastes persist under the radar.
Although Guangdong authorities culled thousands of civets in January 2004, investigators recently found the animals, as well as badgers and pangolins, on the black market and in Guangdong’s “wild flavor” restaurants, where diners hope exotic meats will bring good fortune.
Health inspectors found 14 frozen and one live civet cat, and 22 kilograms of civet cat meat from 18 animals in a sweep of restaurants across the province, the People’s Daily newspaper reported earlier this year.
“You can’t say something else won’t come up,” said Li Jib-heng, general specialist at the Department of Health in Taiwan.
The odds of another human catching SARS from a sick civet cat were next to none, Li said, but added a new disease could emerge from close contact with sick wild animals.
Keeping clear of wild animals could prove difficult for some locals, who are known for their eclectic palettes.
Among Qingping’s cats and chickens were tiger paws, turtles, insects of myriad varieties, and bundled strips of shredded toads — some food, others medicine.
“You can eat anything with four legs except the dinner table,” says one local expression.
(Additional reporting by Ralph Jennings and Ee Lyn Tan)
Editing by Megan Goldin