History & Culture

What Are Wet Markets?

Wet markets have often been blamed as an origin for disease outbreaks. Find out why these markets have a reputation for harbouring and spreading disease.

What are wet markets?

Named after their damp floors resulting from vendors hosing away food scraps, wet markets sell various 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 typically never have a chance to come into contact with one another in the wild, leading to some 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 live and processed animal products in one small space, the opportunity for usually unlikely interspecies disease transmission 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 of these diseases per se. 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.

Then, where did the coronavirus come from?

Experts believe the true source of the coronavirus is 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 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 with 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, disease transmission is mainly 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, if wet markets are so often at the centre of disease outbreaks, then why are they still allowed?

It is easy to assume abolishing wet markets is a straightforward 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 offers 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 often have personal connections with producers of their goods, with customers opting for vendors offering the shortest supply chain between farm and market. With the success of individual vendors so reliant on a personal connection to returning customers, many customers believe these markets provide an opportunity to source produce far fresher than modern supermarkets.2

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

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