Shanghai — Shanghai stepped up inspections and retrieval of dead pigs from its main river after the number of carcasses found in China's largest commercial city climbed to at least 6,600 Wednesday.
The government pulled 685 hogs from the Huangpu river as of 3 p.m., adding to the 5,916 found up until Tuesday, according to a statement on its microblog. The number of pigs found Wednesday fell almost 44 percent from Tuesday even as responsible departments were told to increase checks and add to retrieval efforts following rains Tuesday night and early Wednesday, according to the statement.
The discovery of the hogs comes as China's legislature addresses issues of food safety and citizens become more vocal on the government's handling of public health and environmental issues. The government said March 10 at a National People's Congress meeting that it plans to create a regulator with broader authority to ensure food and drug safety and said the agriculture ministry will oversee the quality of farm products.
"The impact on sentiment is big when you see floating pigs along this river," Jean-Yves Chow, an analyst at Rabobank International, said in an interview in Hong Kong. "It's come to a situation where the government has to do what they need to make some improvements and create transparency among farmers."
The Shanghai government said Sunday it's investigating why so many dead pigs were found in the river. People in Jiaxing, a city in Zhejiang province, have been dumping hogs in the river since March 4, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing the Shanghai information office. Xinhua said authorities in Jiaxing acknowledged dead pigs had been dumped in the water.
The Huangpu River cuts through the center of China's financial hub, running past Shanghai's historic waterfront Bund area. The districts of Songjiang and Jinshan, where many of the pigs were found, are more than 30 kilometers (18 miles) southwest of the city center, which is home to the country's largest stock market and the China headquarters of HSBC Holdings and Citigroup.
A common disease among hogs, porcine circovirus, was found in a sample taken from the river, Shanghai's agriculture department said Monday, citing the city's animal disease control authorities. Tests conducted on the river, which provides drinking water for some of the municipality's 23 million residents, were negative for other diseases including foot-and-mouth, swine fever, hog cholera and blue ear, it said.
There's no evidence that porcine circovirus is a safety risk or causes illness in humans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website.
"If there are dead animals in a water supply, then it's unlikely to be a good idea to drink that water because of the risk of bacteria or other kinds of infections," said Ben Cowling, associate professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health. Consumers should boil the water to kill any bacteria as "it wouldn't be a good idea to drink the river water in Shanghai directly even if there weren't dead pigs," he said.
The city's water authorities conducted "close" inspections on the six water inlets and nine water plants in the affected area today, according to the government's weibo posting. Tests showed "stable" readings for factors such as bacteria levels and odors at the inlets, and that the water plants fulfilled national quality standards, it said. The facilities supply about 22 percent of the city's water.
Shanghai authorities had said in an earlier statement it had restored clean water to parts of the river in Maogang, where the carcasses were first discovered. Investigations by food regulatory authorities show that there's no sign diseased pork has entered the city's markets, according to a posting on the city's website.
Concerns about Shanghai's water follows a public apology issued by Yum Brands, owner of the KFC food chain, in January after a probe found excessive levels of antibiotics in its chicken supplies. Other food-safety scares have included chemicals is liquor and tainted milk that lead to the death of at least six babies in 2008.
"One of the key issues with food is the issue of quality and peace of mind for consumers," Jean-Luc Lowinski, head of China at Sanofi and a trained veterinarian who used to run Bayer AG's global animal health division, said Wednesday in Shanghai. "More and more consumers will ask for traceability and quality in their food."
Xinhua reported Wednesday that a court in Zhejiang jailed 46 people for selling diseased pork, following a campaign to clamp down on the illegal act that started in April 2012. The court said that 6,218 kilograms of pork products that tested positive for various viruses were seized and will be destroyed, according to Xinhua.
Ear tags from 14 of the hogs showed they originated from Jiaxing, a major pig-farming region in Zhejiang province, Xinhua reported Tuesday. Investigations conducted since the carcasses were first discovered showed no sign of a "serious" epidemic among the livestock in the city, the new agency said.
The mortality rate of hogs in Jiaxing is currently within "normal" limits, Xinhua said, citing Jiang Hao, a deputy director of the Jiaxing husbandry and veterinary bureau. There may have been many factors that contributed to the deaths of these pigs, including farming techniques, environmental conditions, climate and illness, Jiang was cited as saying.
Jiaxing has more than 100,000 pig farmers and about 4.5 million hogs are slaughtered there each year, Xinmin.cn reported separately, citing Jiang. Farmers caught discarding dead pigs irresponsibly may face fines of as much as 3,000 yuan ($482), according to the newspaper.
China had more than 460 million hogs in inventory as of December, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture. The nation is the world's biggest consumer and producer of pork. Wholesale pork prices have fallen almost five percent since Feb. 1, according to Ministry of Commerce data.
Prices "are going down because of the seasonal effect after Chinese New Year and prices will continue going down in the second and third quarters," said Rabobank's Chow. Carcases in the river "may put off some consumers for a few days, but keep in mind that pork is still a key staple meat in China."