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Editor’s note: this article was translated and edited from a story which appeared on Wenxuecity.com. In light of the recent Shanghai dead pig scandal, many have speculated about the causes of the phenomenon. Despite officials consistently stating the pigs’ deaths were “natural,” many ordinary folk have remained sceptical. This article looks into the use of arsenic and other growth chemicals in China’s pig breeding industry, and speculates as to whether this is the reason behind the fiasco.
The story of the thousands of dead pigs which were discovered floating in Shanghai’s Huangpu River has been hot in the domestic and international press for already half a month now, and despite having already retrieved over 9000 carcasses, the cause of this incident is still very much a mystery. Despite various officials claiming the pigs’ deaths are “natural” and the river water is “safe,” many ordinary citizens are still unsatisfied with the official explanation and this in turn has offset a number of investigations and discussions.
At 22:32 on March 15, a news conference was held in the nearby city of Jiaxing, in Zhejiang Province. Vice-Mayor of the city Zhao Shumei, stated that there were two main causes behind the infamous “dead pig incident.” The first is the fact that the scale of pig breeding in Jiaxing is very large though the farms they are raised on are often small, with the breeding quality generally being poor. Due to these reasons, the high amount of pig deaths is a normal occurrence. The second reason Zhao mentioned was that the temperatures of the past winter and the spring have been lower than normal leading to a much higher death ratio this year. The two official reasons for the deaths of the pigs have been named as “natural causes” and “freezing to death” by the Jiaxing authorities, though this conclusion has failed to convince the public.
Use of harmful arsenic “no longer a secret”
Comments in the social media saw many questions being asked as to what the real reason behind the pigs’ death could be; a recurring claim by netizens is that the presence of arsenic in their diets could have something to do with their deaths. Pig farmers have been known to feed their pigs organic arsenic as part of their diet around the time of April, as it is said to speed up the growth of pigs and encourage them to grow fur, which in turn helps them fetch a higher price.
The use of arsenic in China’s pig breeding industry is no longer a secret, despite the fact that the chemical has even been confirmed to be a carcinogen by the International Cancer Research Agency. An expert from the Yangzhou University of Animal Science and Technology recently stated that if too much organic arsenic is included in a pig’s diet, then it will inevitably cause serious damage. Jiaxing farmers are known to feed their pigs arsenic during the months of March and April, though it is still unclear as to whether they use a particularly large amount.
Pig breeders refuse to comment
On March 18, an official from the Jiaxing Committee Propaganda Department stated that they were unable to comment on this view and many local pig breeding enterprises also refused to comment on the matter. However, many comments in social media sites noted the fact that after pigs ingest arsenic, the chemical decomposes into a nasty non-organic variant of the chemical which has highly poisonous properties.
“Theoretically, any organic substance has the possibility to become non-organic once it is in the body,” stated the Yangzhou University expert, “take brass for example. The material undergoes certain metabolic changes once it is inside the body, thus making it non-organic and potentially harmful. Whether or not the same can be said for arsenic still requires serious experimentation.” An article written by Guo Xiaozhong and Liu Tianyu who are animal breeding experts at the Yunnan Agricultural University, notes that similar metabolic changes do in fact occur with arsenic and that it is poisonous to many kinds of animals. The article states that arsenic poisoning manifests itself in the form of loss of appetite, weight loss, paralysis, constipation, diarrhoea, dermatitis, and even death.
Harmful effects obvious
Xiao Yonghong, a professor from the Zhejiang University First Affiliated Hospital stated that he didn’t really understand much about arsenic, so couldn’t fully confirm its supposed harmful properties. However, Xiao does admit that the current over-use of antibiotics in the breeding industry has no benefit to pigs and may in fact be extremely harmful. Also, a team of Chinese and American researchers recently analyzed the contents of pig manure at three farms around the Jiaxing area, and found that over 149 different types of genes were resistant to the antibiotics. Xiao said that “conventional Chinese wisdom states that antibiotics will increase the pigs’ resistance to disease. However research shows that it actually causes diseases such as swine flu and swine fever. Effective disease prevention methods such as vaccinations should be introduced to these pig breeding enterprises.”
Profit over safety
The results of using excessive antibiotics and arsenic in animal breeding are obvious. With recent breeding methods incorporating the use of various chemicals, modern day pigs have in fact developed immunities to some of the bacteria present. However, this bacteria can be transferred to humans if pork isn’t properly cooked, which in lieu of our weak resistance to these chemicals can lead to serious illnesses. In 1986, Sweden became the first country to ban all such additives as growth promoters in animals, with Denmark also following suit soon after. Xiao stated that in 2005, America, countries in the EU, and Australia also implemented the same ban. “As long as they’re not sick, the pigs simply aren’t allowed to take antibiotics,” added Xiao. Regarding the obvious health threats, China’s Ministry of Agriculture also came up with plans to implement similar bans, though most of the antibiotics remain legal to use. Another worrying factor is the fact that the bans aren’t always enforced at a grassroots level and that quarantine departments don’t conduct rigorous tests on the pigs. Often, farmers pay a few kuai per pig to receive the correct paper work.
Xiao Yonghong stated that “despite the obvious dangers regarding these chemicals, the economic factor remains important. There is huge profit to be made in this business, and this probably is the main factor hampering progress.”
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Keywords: China’s pig breeding industry Shanghai dead pig scandal
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