COVID-19: How safe are Indian wet markets?

India is a huge market for meats. Apart from usual poultry, bovine and fish, a few protected species are also illegally traded for food in wet markets

By Parikshit Goyal
Published: Thursday 04 June 2020
A wet market usually has multiple open-air stalls spread over a large area that sell vegetables, fruits, meat and fresh seafood. Some slaughter and sell live animals on site Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Most people did not know the term ‘wet market’ before the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The term gained almost universal acknowledgement once it emerged the possible source of the COVID-19 outbreak was the Huanan seafood wholesale market, a wet market in China’s Wuhan.

Close interactions with wild animals caused numerous disease outbreaks in humans even before the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Several other strains of the virus — including the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe acute respiratory syndrome — had zoonotic origins, which means they originated in an animal host before spilling over to human populations. Other viruses such as Ebola, Nipah, H1N1 (swine flu) all have zoonotic origins.

A wet market usually has multiple open-air stalls spread over a large area that sell vegetables, fruits, meat and fresh seafood. Some slaughter and sell live animals on site, including poultry and fish, while some illegally deal in meat of wild animals as well.

These markets are known as wet markets because water and ice are used to keep food and meat fresh.

India is a huge market for meats. Apart from usual poultry, bovine and fish, a few protected species are also illegally traded for food in wet markets across the country.

The sale of turtle meat is rampant in West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and parts of Uttar Pradesh, according to reports. Wet markets illicitly sell wild meat and other derivatives from porcupine quills to lizard oil to manta rays: All protected species by law.

Consumption of meat per se does not increase the risk of disease transmission. It increases when animals are stressed, stored in small cages and in close contact with humans during the slaughtering process.

The immune system of animals is weakened under duress. Viral pathogens can intermingle and mutate in ways that make them more transmissible between species. The virus can then jump to food handlers or customers through exposure to an animal’s bodily fluids.

Leaders across the world, health experts and international bodies including United Nations have called for a ban on wet markets.

In January 2020 — after the spread of COVID-19 — China closed Huanan market, but re-opened it recently. Closing meat shops indefinitely is not an option.

Meat is an affordable source of nutrition for a large section of people. Strict regulations are needed, however, due to the potential danger of the origin of diseases from wet markets and food habits.

How equipped is India?

The most important legislation is the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (FSSA), that overrides all other food-related laws in operation prior to it. FSSA initiates harmonisation of India’s food regulations according to international standards.

The Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Business) Regulations, 2011 govern the aspect of license and registration of food businesses, including meat and meat-based products. Under Regulation 2.1, all food business operators in the country are required to be registered. A valid license is needed for any food-related operation and to ensure safety, sanitary and hygienic conditions.

The act has ensured the closure of illegal slaughter houses and butcher shops. Such businesses are now required to obtain proper licenses and follow hygiene-related guidelines laid by Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).

Only goat, sheep, pigs, bovine, poultry and fish are allowed to be slaughtered.

Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Slaughter House) Rules, 2001 stipulate that a veterinarian must certify the animal is healthy and disease-free before being slaughtered for meat. A number of municipal laws are applicable to meat markets and slaughter houses as well.

No animal may be slaughtered except at a municipal or registered slaughter house, according to section 415 of the Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957.

In localities where a municipal slaughter house exists, it is illegal for animals to be killed anywhere else, according to section 407 of the act. Further, under the Water Pollution Act, it is illegal for slaughter house waste to be discharged into any water resource.

Like many other laws, the implementation of FSSA was found lacking in various aspects. In 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) submitted its report on the implementation of the act.

The report found systemic inefficiencies, delays and deficiencies in the framing of several regulations and standards. It was observed licenses were issued on the basis of incomplete documents in more than half of the cases.

It was further noted that most of the state food laboratories entrusted with food testing and certification functions were not only ill-equipped, but also did not possess National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories accreditation.

To shore up its efforts in 2019, FSSAI mandated a food safety audit for food businesses in six high-risk categories: Dairy products, meat and meat products, fish and fish products, egg and egg products, food for infant nutrition and prepared food (catering).

Third party audits of municipal and other slaughter houses were in progress till now. FSSAI also created a hygiene rating for meat shops. Setting up regional offices and more labs was also proposed.

It is important for existing legislations to be strictly enforced. FSSAI as a nodal agency should be strengthened and better equipped to ensure safe food and food outlets.

Robust measures regarding licensing, sampling and testing need to be put in place. Skilled manpower, with a scientific approach, should be recruited. Penalties for violation of norms should be made stricter. Tighter curbs on illegal wildlife trade are imperative.

Further, there is a need for greater synergy and coordination between concerned ministries, agencies such as FSSAI and civic municipal bodies. State governments must explore and support advanced agricultural technologies to solve food safety (and security) issues.

Alternate meat sources derived from plants and laboratory cultured cell-based meat has already gained traction. This sector is expected to comprise 35 per cent of the global meat market by 2040, according to estimates.

Singer Paul McCartney recently said it was “a little bit medieval eating bats”. He may be right. The Beatles legend famously recorded I wanna hold your hand, making the song a rage in 1963. He did not likely envision social-distancing then. Perhaps it is time to give medieval practices a burial.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.