Mar 21, 2013 07:40 PM

Closer Look: What Should China Do with 18 Mln Pigs Carcasses Every Year?

More than 10,000 dead pigs have been pulled out of a Shanghai river that provides drinking water to 23 million people over two weeks, raising health concerns. Even worse, there have been reports that many dead pigs were processed and sent to people's dining tables.

Behind all of this is the issue of disposing of pigs that dies from disease, an area that regulators have long neglected.

Yu Kangzhen, an expert from the Ministry of Agriculture, said that an investigation has not found an epidemic at farms in Jiaxing, a city in Zhejiang Province believed to be the source of the animals found in Shanghai's Huangpu River.

Information from other sources backs Yu. There has been no significant rise in pig deaths in Jiaxing this year. As a major pig farming city, Jiaxing raised about 4 million of the animals every year. If a normal death rate from disease is used, about 3 percent, this means the city has to handle about 120,000 dead pigs per year.

China raises more pigs than any other country in the world. Rough statistics show that it had nearly 700 million pigs in 2012. That means, about 18 million pigs died of disease every year.

How does China handle such a large number? The ministry says pigs that die from disease are usually buried or burned. But in reality, many farmers illegally sell them or simply dump the carcasses.

On March 4, the Jiaxing newspaper reported an increase in cases of dead pigs being dumped. The report said the city cracked down on illegal transactions involving dead pigs, and more farmers were dumping carcasses than in the past.

What happened to the pigs that were illegally sold? The biggest possibility is they were sold to people's dinning table.

In October, a court in Jiaxing heard a case involving the processing and selling of dead pigs. The defendants were accused of illegal processing 77,000 tons of dead pigs since 2008 and selling the meat to locals. They made 8.6 million yuan from the deals.

This case is not unique. The Zhejiang public security bureau said in August that 30 similar cases involving 207 people had been uncovered since January. Cases have been reported in other provinces.

Selling and dumping dead pigs can result in serious risks to public health and the environment. The repeated cases indicate a weakness of supervision.

Indeed, of all government agencies, the Ministry of Agriculture and other related organs have long held a weak position. Their capacity and resources do not match their responsibilities. That has created great challenges for them in strictly regulating the disposal of dead pigs.

But that should not be an excuse. The regulator should first understand why farmers are unwilling to follow the rules and what their economic impetus is.

Jiaxing's facilities for burning pig carcasses cannot meet demand. Meanwhile, land for burying them is difficult to find. Therefore, farmers turn to illegal dealers because they know punishment is not severe.

The first thing the local government should do is to increase investment in facilities and supportive policies to encourage farmers to dispose of carcasses properly. Many governments have done this, but obviously enough has not been done.

Second, the government should consider other options. Dead pigs can be used for other purposes. With proper processing, for example, they can be used for fish feed.

The government should also consider compensating farmers to encourage them to dispose of carcasses properly.

More importantly, law making and enforcement should be strengthened and consistent.

Finally, a long-overdue system for registering pigs should be established. This system should effectively trace the source of pork and ensure its quality.

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