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Wednesday, May 8, 2013 - 8:15am

Rat 'Mutton' And Bird Flu: Strange Days For Meat Eaters In Shanghai

The past couple of months have been unsettling ones for meat eaters in Shanghai.

In March, more than 16,000 dead pigs showed up in a stretch of the Huangpu River a main source of the city's drinking water.

Local officials insisted both the water and the city's pork supply were safe, but they never explained exactly how the pigs died or how they ended up in the river. One working theory was that farmers upstream in neighboring Zhejiang province dumped the dead pigs after officials there cracked down on the practice of selling diseased pork to local markets.

On China's increasingly irreverent social media, some people tried to look on the bright side and suggested that Shanghai's river had essentially become a giant bowl of pork soup.

Soon afterward, another, far more serious meat problem emerged in this city of 23 million. The H7N9 virus showed up in live fowl in Shanghai's fresh meat and produce markets. The government shut down live poultry sellers and killed more than 100,000 chickens, ducks and other birds. One apartment complex downtown even penned off a handful of black swans, warning residents to keep their distance just in case.

The virus has killed 13 people in Shanghai, home to nearly half of all the fatal cases in China. Scientists say so far, the virus appears to be transmitted from birds to people, and there's no clear evidence of sustainable human-to-human transmission, which could spark a pandemic.

Some city restaurants, including a Sichuanese place where I order Kung Pao chicken, stopped serving chicken, but many others continue to stock it. On May 1, a national holiday, a KFC on Nanjing Road, Shanghai's main shopping street, was jammed at lunchtime.

"I'm not worried," said a man named Yang as he considered his New Orleans chicken burger. "It's common knowledge that the virus will be killed under high temperature. So judging from existing reports, it is safe to eat chicken."

As for mutton, well, that came into question last week after police announced that they had busted a crime ring that had passed off more than $1 million worth of rat and other small mammal meat as mutton. The gang allegedly used additives to spice up rat, fox and mink meat to sell in markets in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province since 2009.

The arrests were part of a nationwide crackdown that netted more than 900 suspects and more than 20,000 tons of fake or inferior meat.

Following some of Shanghai's food safety problems, Ministry of Harmony, an English-language satire site, issued a fake news report about city officials encouraging residents to eat more healthfully. The slogan for Shanghai's new campaign: "Go Vegan If You Want To Live."

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