H7N9 outbreak may be over, but pall of suspicion hangs over Shanghai

Officials' poor response to bird flu outbreak and food safety leaves residents wary of assurances

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 4:20am

No new cases of H7N9 bird flu have been confirmed in Shanghai since the middle of last month, but many residents are still worried about eating chicken and pork.

Cold-processed poultry meat has now been allowed back on the market following the removal of an alert and many Shanghai residents believe live poultry markets will reopen soon.

But the shadow of the H7N9 outbreak, which began in March and saw 132 mainlanders infected, 37 of whom died, hangs heavy over the city.

Shortly before the first confirmed case of H7N9 in Shanghai, more than 10,000 dead pigs from the neighbouring city of Jiaxing , in Zhejiang province, floated down Shanghai's Huangpu River.

Shanghai residents say they would rather avoid chicken and pork until the city government gives them some clear answers.

"The officials are supposed to tell the people which foods are now safe to eat," resident Wan Li said. "We need to be alert because it seems a deadly new virus could be found at any time."

No solid evidence of human-to-human transmission was found during the outbreak. However, the source of the Sars outbreak 10 years ago, which killed 349 people on the mainland, has not yet been confirmed despite a decade of research and people are understandably cautious of putting chicken back on their dinner tables.

Food safety remains a primary concern for Shanghai residents after a series of scandals that exacerbated a crisis of confidence.

Wu Liangliang , a 27-year-old who helped his parents-in-law sell pork at a Shanghai wet market, died of the H7N9 flu at the beginning of April, sparking a panic among residents worried that the new strain of virus could have originated in pigs.

City officials denied the speculation, insisting that the pork on sale was safe, but residents were not convinced.

Early last month their confidence was further dented when police busted a crime ring that disguised rat meat as mutton and supplied it to restaurants in Shanghai.

Several restaurant owners complained of the lax oversight of food processing, claiming they were also victims of the scam.

There is anecdotal evidence that the city government has stepped up inspections of food products recently in an effort to avoid social disorder.

A meat vendor said his products were frequently taken away by the authorities for random checks. "Why couldn't they do it earlier?" he said. "It seems that they are nervous now because it looks as if everything is out of control."

The municipality's Health and Family Planning Commission said recently that cancer deaths had surged in Shanghai due to its ageing population and people's unhealthy eating habits.

This added to the public's anger, with the food safety situation getting worse rather than better.

The authorities might regard the removal of the H7N9 alert as a triumph, but residents believe it is time they took some serious action to ensure food safety.