Shanghai's dead-pig flotilla needs explaining

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 3:00am

Shanghai residents could be excused for feeling shocked and outraged after the city's waterway was found choked with dead pigs. Over the past week, thousands of rotting carcasses were seen drifting down the river that flows through the city. More disturbing is that little is known about how it happened. Nor do we know what is being done to contain the problem. Given the potential threat to public health in the region, the lack of transparency and protection is regrettable.

The labels on the hogs suggest they came from as far as Jiangsu and Zhejiang . It defies common sense when officials insist the water is still safe to drink after an environmental disaster of such scale. Reports of a common hog disease found in one sample taken from the river do not go well with that claim. Suggestions by a government official that they died of cold weather muddy the water further.

Apparently well aware of the growing fears and criticism, the city authority yesterday stepped up efforts to tackle the crisis. It said clean water had been restored as retrieval of carcasses in the section where the problem first emerged was "basically" completed. But it remains a mystery how hundreds of pigs died and ended up in the river. Unless the cause of contamination can be determined, and better assurances are given, people can hardly put their minds at ease.

The incident comes at a time when China is determined to better control food and drug safety by appointing a regulator with broader authority. At stake is not just whether the water in the region is safe to drink. Fears are growing that diseased pork may end up on dining tables, though food regulatory authorities maintain that there is no sign of carcasses entering the market at this stage.

Transparency is key when environmental hazards and health crises arise. Growing awareness on this front means officials are expected to do a better job of protecting people's health. The community needs to be informed of what went wrong and how it is being fixed. A cover-up is not an option.