By Xinhua writers Li Jianmin and Gui Tao
BEIJING, April 30 (Xinhua) -- To eat pork or not to eat pork, that's the question for many Chinese consumers as swine flu, or the H1N1 influenza epidemic, spreads globally.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has raised its level of pandemic alert from phase 4 to 5, indicating that a pandemic is "imminent." The virus is suspected of killing more than 150 people in North America.
Although the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as well as Chinese health officials, have said there is no proof the flu virus is found in pigs or can be contracted through eating pig meat or other pork products, the disease has nevertheless cast shadows over China's pork market.
In central Henan Province, one of the country's leading swine exporters, vendors have felt the chill.
"Normally, I sell about 130 kg pork everyday at this time of year," said Feng Jianwei, in Zhengzhou, capital of Henan. "But business has slumped."
Feng's daily sales average 100 kg pork. "I believe it was affected by the swine flu," he said.
The H1N1 influenza epidemic also threatens the economy of the southwestern Sichuan Province, which is recovering from the devastating earthquake in May last year.
When survivor Wang Jiawen borrowed money from his neighbors to buy two piglets to raise in May, the farmer never expected flu could dash his hopes of a new beginning.
"Now I just hope that I can break even," Wang said.
"The pork price has fallen amid the global financial crisis and pig raisers in Sichuan cannot afford another hit," said Lan Jianming, vice head of the Sichuan Provincial Animal Husbandry and Food Administration.
"With the possible further development of the H1N1 influenza epidemic, the fortunes of Sichuan's pig industry may worsen," he said.
A similar situation could be seen in the market of Nanchang, capital of the eastern Jiangxi Province.
Pork prices have dropped by about 10 percent at the city's Bayiqiao market, but that still failed to lure cautious consumers, vendor Deng Shen said.
However, fish and chicken are gaining popularity at the market.
"I won't consider buying pork in the near future, though no swine flu cases have been reported in our country," shopper Wu Qinghua told Xinhua.
"After all, it won't affect my health even if I don't eat pork. I can choose chicken or fish," he said.
But not all consumers are pessimistic.
At the Yongchang market in Changchun, capital of northeastern Jilin Province, residents were seen thronging the pork stands Thursday afternoon.
"It sells very well today, better than normal," vendor Jiang Lihui told Xinhua. "I think it's because the May Day holiday is coming and people need more pork for celebrations."
Shopper Guan Shaoshan said he had no special feeling about swine flu.
"Of course I will cook the pork before eating it in case of infection. On the other hand, I know the government is taking preventive measures," he said.
Nationwide, the swine flu outbreak has not affected pork markets significantly, according to a Xinhua-operated monitoring system on prices of the country's farm and sideline products.
The supply and sale of pork were normal, and pork prices showed no big fluctuations despite a slight fall Thursday.
The sales volume in some provinces dropped to different extents, but the upcoming May Day holiday again spurred pork sales, the monitoring system shows.
In Guangzhou, capital of southern Guangdong Province, most consumers interviewed by Xinhua expressed optimism and confidence.
"Pork is a daily necessity for my family. We won't eat less pork just because of the swine flu outbreak in other countries," resident Guan Jian said.
"But for the sake of safety, I only go to supermarkets to buy pork now instead of crowded outdoor markets," he said.
Although China has no reported human-infected H1N1 cases, Health Minister Chen Zhu told reporters Thursday that the possibility of the virus entering the country could not be ruled out.
He said China had developed an effective method for the instant diagnosis of possible H1N1 infection, and the new detection method would be available at disease control and prevention offices across the country.
The Health Ministry has issued and distributed a guideline for diagnosis for H1N1 and its variants to health departments nationwide, mandating local authorities to train medical personnel as soon as possible.
It has also published a self-protection manual on its website for the public, who are expected to participate in group activities in the upcoming May Day holiday.
The manual, in Chinese, details the basic preparations people must take before joining tours and urges them to maintain good personal hygiene.
The State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine also asked all local health authorities to involve traditional Chinese medicine experts in the health emergency responding teams in order to take full advantage of traditional remedies.
Customs posts across the country have been told to conduct strict checks of imported pigs and pork products, especially those from countries and regions affected by swine flu, the General Administration of Customs (GAC) announced Thursday.
Products without valid quality certification will be banned from coming into China. At the same time, the GAC urged customs at all levels to crack down on the smuggling of pork products.
Meanwhile, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce (SAIC) has ordered greater market supervision of domestic pork markets.
Also Thursday, the Ministry of Agriculture issued an emergency response act against the swine flu, urging local veterinary administrations across the country to report within two hours any finding of flu symptoms among pig herds.