Let them eat cats

International | SPECIAL REPORT: Will loosened standards on Chinese delicacies bring back SARS?

Issue: "As the West burns," Sept. 6, 2003

PART OF THE THRILL OF EATING in Guangdong Province is watching your food die in front of you. Eels, turtles, and prawns swim tableside in well-tended aquariums until patrons place an order. Then they are caught and cooked, sometimes in a pot right on the table.

In all of China, with its peculiar brand of haute cuisine, nowhere excels for freshness and exotica like the southern province where Cantonese dishes originated. And there is nothing Cantonese won't eat-"everything with legs except for chairs, and everything with wings except for airplanes," the saying goes.

Restaurants in Guangzhou, the largest city in the province, feature a dish called "Dragon, Tiger, and Phoenix." Its ingredients are snake, cat, and chicken. At Shenzhen's new Wal-Mart, a favorite staple is live frogs.

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Since the outbreak of SARS, Chinese authorities have tried to curb Guangdong's market in wild and exotic animal meat. They banned the sale of dozens of species. They closed some markets outright after health officials announced a potential link between civet cats, a weasel-like mammal, and SARS, the atypical pneumonia that killed over 900 people in a worldwide outbreak this year.

But old eating habits die hard. And city markets are the terminus for a vast chain of food producers extending into economically depressed rural areas. Rodents, turtles, dogs, and cats-not to mention scorpions and assorted reptiles-show up in street stalls despite health orders.

While a clear link between SARS and animal markets remains unproven, scientists do know that the earliest cases of SARS occurred in Guangdong Province. The disease began its worldwide march last February when an infected doctor from Guangdong checked into Room 911 of the Metropole Hotel in Hong Kong.

From there, hotel guests carried the virus to Toronto, Vietnam, and Singapore. It spread rapidly within hospitals before spilling into larger communities and ultimately causing outbreaks in 30 countries. Carlo Urbani, a World Health Organization epidemiologist in Hanoi, became the first to identify SARS. He came down with SARS pneumonia and died on March 29.

Working back to the source, scientists believe many exotic animals in southern China (and elsewhere) show a virus similar to SARS. Six teams of researchers are currently in Guangdong to test both animals and humans.

While their work at this point is inconclusive, researchers told the Far Eastern Economic Review they have found a coronavirus similar to SARS in the civet cat and the raccoon dog, plus SARS antibodies in a species of badger. "By applying the cautionary principle, one would certainly think twice before allowing an animal that may play such a role into the markets again," WHO virologist Klaus Stohr told the Review.

But China is allowing the animals back into the markets again. In mid-August the government ordered an end to prohibitions on the sale and purchase of 54 types of wildlife-including civet cats.

The decision came from China's forestry administration rather than health officials, suggesting economic interests have trumped public health. "Starting to sell them in markets again seems to be looking for trouble," said Harvard University professor and SARS researcher Henry Niman.

China's last known case of SARS was reported in June. The first known case began in Guangdong last November. Government officials initially suppressed SARS evidence, likely worsening its toll across China. Of 8,400 total cases, 5,300 were in China; of over 900 deaths worldwide, 350 were in China.

The good news is that most SARS victims recovered. The heroism of Dr. Urbani and others, who quarantined themselves inside SARS wards, prevented the disease from spreading more than it did. In July the World Health Organization declared, "The human-to-human chain of transmission of this new disease appears to be broken globally."

But health officials say that reasons for concern remain. All signs point to a pool of the virus lurking in animal populations. Easing restrictions, coupled with cold weather, could set off outbreaks again. A resurgence of cases in Toronto in late May was a reminder, WHO researchers say, of the resilience of SARS and its capacity to surprise.

In July, Beijing Ditan hospital, the last remaining SARS treatment facility, had 13 SARS patients; nine were in intensive care. The hospital released the last two of these patients on Aug. 16. Doctors, nurses, and government officials gathered to cheer the departing SARS survivors-a 19-year-old student and a 45-year-old medical worker, both hospitalized since April.

Dr. Henk Bekedam, WHO representative in China, said, "SARS has been a harsh lesson for us all. But harsh lessons make good teachers."


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