Selling meat from pigs that die of disease has been called the achilles heel of pork safety. This blog has reported on various raids and crackdowns. In October 2011 the Ministry of Commerce announced a major crackdown on illegal butchers nationwide that would ensure that all pork sold came from legally-designated slaughterhouses by June 2012. So the problems was solved last year, right?
Well, not exactly. A pair of December 2012 news articles on illegal butcher raids in the city of Rui'an in southern Zhejiang Province suggest a "Keystone Kops" approach to food safety enforcement in China. Another story from Hunan Province reports that a veterinarian acted as a broker for dead pig butchers.
Midnight Raids "Educate" Perps
After midnight on December 11, over 100 enforcement personnel from the city's food safety office and its commerce, agriculture and forestry, public security, food and drug monitoring, technical supervision, and environmental protection bureaus were mobilized to raid illegal butcher "dens" in districts outside the city.
Rui'an City consumes about 1500 pigs daily. Most of them come from the legally-designated slaughterhouse, but some are slaughtered illegally by private butchers. Authorities began a publicity program to stamp out illegal butchering in July 2012. They organized the December raids after getting tips that illegal butchers were operating in several districts. The enforcement team was described as "education-oriented, people-oriented, using force as a supplement." In other words, they just warned the people they caught. The enforcers were apparently surprised to find butchers who promised to change their ways went back to butchering the next day.
One team went to Wulin village where they found the door to the alleged butcher den closed and no lights on. As the team was about to give up and move on, they spied a guy on a tricycle cart carrying what appeared to be a pig. The frightened tricycle driver jumped off his bike and tried to get away, but the team leader yelled, "Grab him quick, don't let him get away!"
With a look of panic, the tricycle driver exclaimed, "I didn't mean it, I'm willing to be educated!"
The perpetrator was a farmer from the neighborhood who has a dozen pigs in his backyard and had just killed one that he planned to sell in the local market. After receiving a lecture and promising to take all his pigs to the legal slaughterhouse, the man was sent on his way. There was no report of what happened to the pig.
The team then went to another alleged butcher den where they again found the door closed and no lights on. This time the team noticed white smoke billowing from the opposite side of the building. They called in to the building but received no response. They barged in through the door and found a single butcher. When asked why he didn't respond to their demand to open the door, the man replied that he had been playing with his cell phone and didn't hear them.
This butcher den was in a ramshackle building with two pens containing ten live pigs and a steaming vat for removing pig bristles. Nearby there was an old refrigerator containing a butchered hog that gave off a strong odor.
The enforcement team told the butcher, “We won’t take away the pigs this time, but starting tomorrow you must take pigs to the designated slaughterhouse. Otherwise we’ll confiscate them.”
A farmer delivering a pig to this butcher den was also warned. The farmer agreed to lead the team to two other butcher dens.
The next butcher den was hidden away in an alley in a residential neighborhood. They found four people butchering hogs there. Another butcher den was in a disused grain warehouse, also in a winding lane that was hard to find. It was cluttered, the ground was covered in blood, waste water, and pig organs, and butchered pigs were stored on shelves. There were two pens containing 20 pigs.
A man named Du explained that he had been running late and couldn't get the pigs to the legal slaughterhouse on time. He didn't know whom to contact at the slaughterhouse. The enforcement team "educated" him and made him promise to take his pigs to the legal slaugtherhouse from now on. They let him keep the pigs.
By the morning their car was filled with 12 live pigs, one dead pig, and some tools they had seized in their raids of seven butcher dens that night. Reportedly, there were a dozen illegal butchers who made arrangements to bring pigs to the legal slaugtherhouse the next day.
Butchers Were Still in Business
The enforcement team gave out phone numbers for citizens to report illegal butcher dens. The following week, authorities received calls reporting that quite a few illegal butcher dens were still operating, despite the enforcement team's midnight educational work.
They organized another raid on December 22, checking up on some of the dens they had raided earlier.
Some of the butchers, afraid of getting caught in midnight raids, had started doing their butchering during the day. At one den in a bamboo shack, one of the raiders exclaimed, "Wow, didn't we destroy this vat last time we were here?"
The team leader explained, "Last time we raided, we warned this guy and he promised not to slaughter any more hogs. This time we'll have to destroy his tools."
"We simply can't let this go on," he said.
Another butcher den had been reported three times by residents, but the team had been unable to find it until they got detailed instructions from one citizen by phone. A neighbor complained that the place stinks and the squealing from the pigs keeps them up at night. He's frustrated that it has been reported many times but no one has done anything about it.
In this den there were no live pigs but fresh skins were stacked in the corner. They destroyed the vat with a sledgehammer.
The last butcher den raided was a nasty room with spiderwebs, blood and urine on the floor, and dead pigs lying on benches.
A lady there insisted she hadn't slaughtered any pigs since the last time they raided. She said she was processing pig blood she bought from a legal slaughterhouse. The team leader told her she wasn't allowed to process anything from a pig. He called the slaughterhouse and warned them, "If we hear about this happening again, we'll come and check up on you too."
Veterinary Director was Sick-Pig Broker
The director of a veterinary station in a district of Hunan Province apparently put his knowledge of pig disease to work as a business enterprise. When he heard about farmers with sick pigs, he notified dealers who went to buy them. He got 100 yuan or a carton of cigarettes per pig for his brokerage services.
The veterinary officer was accused of selling over 30 dead pigs since 2008. The pigs had symptoms that included foaming at the mouth, diarrhea, and fever.
One of China's strategies for dissuading the sale of dead pigs is to provide subsidized insurance. In this case, the farmers took the insurance money and the money from butchers. The veterinarian assessed the cause of death and made claims to the insurance company to get indemnities of 700-1000 yuan. The farmers knew the pigs should be burned or buried, however to reduce losses, they wanted to sell to buyers who were introduced by the veterinarian.
The veterinary director was arrested along with three butchers last July and accused of "creating panic" among other things. This week he was sentenced to 6 months in prison. Authorities say they spent ten years investigating the illegal sale of pork in this district.
Last July, a local resident posted online, "Probably everyone in our area has eaten this kind of pork, causing us to worry about our health. Now no one will eat pork again."
Dead Pigs Discovered in Shenyang
A pile of dead piglets was discovered by the road outside a residential community in Shengyang, Liaoning Province in early December. No one knew how they got there, but it made local residents worry that pork from dead pigs was being sold in their neighborhood, posing a food safety or disease threat.
It Happens in Taiwan Too
Chinese news media were probably pleased to report that sale of sick and dead pigs happens in Taiwan too. Taiwan media reported police found over 4000 kg of sick and dead pork in a meat locker in southern Taiwan. The suspects had been selling pork from dead pigs to hot pot, barbecue and all-you-can-eat restaurants for about half a year. They had been caught doing it five years earlier and resumed the business last year.