History & Culture

What Are Wet Markets?

Wet markets have often been blamed as an origin for a number of disease outbreaks. Read on to learn more about what happens at these markets to give them such a renowned reputation for harbouring and facilitating the spread of disease.

What are wet markets?

Named after their often damp floors resulting from vendors hosing away food scraps, wet markets sell a variety of products, from fresh vegetables and processed meats to live animals (like fish, poultry and other seafood). In some wet markets around the world, vendors also sell less common wild animals like crocodiles, snakes, bats and turtles. Many of these animals would normally never have a chance to come into contact with one another in the wild, leading to a number of issues around interspecies disease transmission.

Are wet markets a hotspot for disease?

In short, yes, these markets can provide an environment for zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animal to human), like the current COVID-19 coronavirus, to more easily evolve and spread. With many wet markets selling both live and processed animal products in one small space, the opportunity for usually unlikely interspecies transmission of disease becomes far greater than would be possible in the wild.

It is important to mention that this does not mean that wet markets are the origin for these diseases per say. Many outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as SARS, MERS or even the COVID-19 coronavirus have been suspected to have originated far from marketplaces and are not necessarily related to marketplace hygiene at all.

Then, where did the coronavirus come from?

The true source of the coronavirus is believed by experts to be far from the wet markets, originating from bats and their faeces. With the Wuhan coronavirus sharing 96% of its genetic code with other coronaviruses found commonly in Chinese bat populations, that is where the virus most likely originated.1 Similarly, the 2003 SARS outbreak was also linked directly to bats as a point of origin.

But how do these viruses reach the food in a marketplace?

In essence, the chain of transmission goes something like this:

  1. A virus carrying bat leaves faeces or other secretions on food sources,
  2. an intermediary animal comes into contact or eats that food source and becomes a carrier,
  3. humans then come into contact with that animal through food or contact (more than likely in markets where interspecies mingling is condensed).
  4. From this point onwards, the transmission of disease is largely down to humans, not the animals or food we are consuming.

Read more about wet markets and zoonotic viruses

So, why have wet markets?

Now you might be thinking, well if wet markets are so often at the centre of disease outbreaks, then why are they still allowed?

Of course, it is easier to assume abolishing wet markets is a straight forward solution, but it is important to employ a degree of cultural understanding when attempting to understand the truths behind the origins of our food.

Local customs in wet markets

The more traditional nature of wet markets also offer a place for community gathering, with local buyers able to connect with vendors while buying their household food. Often tending to be small in scale and minimally regulated, the low financial investment required for vendor involvement provides local food producers an easy entry point into the food market, and an opportunity for livelihood.

On top of this, vendors pride and price their products upon an ability to retain personal connections with buyers of their goods, with customers often opting for vendors offering the shortest supply chain between farm and market. With success of individual vendors so reliant on personal connection to returning customers, many customers actually believe these markets provide an opportunity to source produce far fresher than modern supermarkets.2

In many ways, this system is providing an accountable option for those who favour knowing their farmers. Whether it should be more closely monitored, however, is still open for discussion.

What do you think of wet markets? Let us know in the comments below!

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