Apr 23, 2013 07:11 PM

Closer Look: How Pig Carcasses Can Become Treasure Instead of Trash


More than 16,000 dead pigs were found in tributaries of the Huangpu River, not far from Shanghai, in eastern China, in March.

At the same time, scores of diseased pig carcasses were also found miles away in Liuyang River, in the central province of Hunan. The massive number of dead pigs discovered nationwide caused great public concern.

The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) says China raised 700 million pigs in 2012. That's about half the world's production. Even with a conservative estimate of a natural mortality rate of 3 to 5 percent, up to 35 million pigs die of disease every year. Disposing of these carcasses is not a simple affair.

In theory the Chinese government has come up with a sanitary way for farmers to decontaminate and dispose of these carcasses. Diseased animals have to be buried deep or cremated. Farmers can apply to receive a subsidy of 80 yuan for each diseased pig they dispose of in this way.

But in practice, pig carcasses are most often thrown into rivers or dumped in a field. A large number of them are sold on the black market, ending up on dinner plates.

Numerous investigative news reports, court reports and academic studies have shed light on this type of consumption of pork. However, the public is largely unaware of the health risks involved with consuming livestock or poultry that died of disease.

Xie Yan, an associate researcher at the Institute of Zoology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said the illegal disposal of dead animals is bound to pose a threat to the environment and public safety. For instance, a virus that is originally only found in animals can come into close contact with humans – leading to zoonosis, where an infectious disease is transmitted from animals to human.

In 2005, the southwestern province of Sichuan reported 215 human cases of Streptococcus suis, with 38 deaths. Investigations found that the outbreak was caused by diseased pigs being sold on the black market. All the deceased had been in contact with the pigs, either through slaughtering, processing or eating them.

In 1997, after the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Taiwan, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) issued a 10-year ban on the export of Taiwanese pork and pork products. The epidemic was caused by pig carcasses discarded in roadside ditches.

Although China is the world's biggest pig-breeding country, it lags in carcass disposal standards and related subsidies to farmers. What is particularly worrying is that the sanitary disposal of animal carcasses is not a priority of local governments. 

Major Obstacles

At the end of 2009, the government introduced standards on how to process diseased animals and related animal products. But this has not helped control the anarchic way farmers dispose of carcasses. Caixin's investigations found that there are several obstacles to preventing farmers from conforming to disposal standards.

First, small farms with less than 50 pigs are excluded from receiving subsidies for disposing of pig carcasses. Yet, according to the NBS, one-third of the country's farms – representing 220 million pigs – have less than 50 pigs each. Using the 5 percent natural mortality rate, that means 11 million dead pigs per year are not covered by subsidies. This number can rise much higher in the event of a disease outbreak.

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