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What is a wet market and where to find one

A wet market is a market where people can buy fresh food: vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. It can be located inside a building or on the street.

Where to find a wet market?

A wet market could be considered as including characteristics from a farmer’s market, a butcher and a fish market. As a matter of fact, these three types of markets are present all over the world, although most media in the West define “wet market” only those markets located in Asia, Africa and South America, especially in developing countries.

a wet market in korea
A wet market in South Korea.

Wet markets, just like local farmer’s markets elsewhere, are found in residential areas or in dedicated zones of a city. Some wet markets have specific functions and will dedicate to vegetables or fruit, but many try to provide any kind of fresh food for the sake of convenience.

Why wet markets?

Their name derives from the practice to spray water and use ice to keep ingredients as fresh as possible while showing them, which makes most of the ground wet. It’s not a translation of the Chinese names, which generally are “farmer’s market”, “fish market”, “agricultural market” and so on.
The definition of wet markets opposes them to “dry markets”. In dry markets, the products sold are durable – e.g. clothes or components.
While live animal markets are also classifiable as wet markets, not all wet markets sell live animals. A live animal market sells live animals and includes butchering services for the buyers. These markets have the advantage to provide a clear guarantee on the freshness of the product. This is especially important for elder customers, who dislike pre-sealed food. Furthermore, it allows them to choose what they are going to cook and eat. They can also request specific slices of meat and so on. All over the world people like to choose fruit and vegetables, so it only makes sense that it is so popular for more expensive products such as fish and meat.

Not all wet markets are wildlife markets

Many recently call “wet markets” the wildlife markets. This is a generalization and caused many misunderstandings. A wildlife market is often a wet market, but a wet market is almost always not dealing with wildlife. But then, why this generalization?
A portion of the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market had some sellers dealing with wildlife. Huanan is a wet market in Wuhan, Hubei. It is also the biggest market of Central China with more than 1000 stores. It is unfortunately known as one of the first areas where COVID-19 was found.
As a consequence, Huanan was defined as hosting wildlife everywhere and wet market became a term to describe a market where live animal, often wild, are being sold in unhygienic conditions. That’s a stereotyped definition which does not fit reality.

Banning wildlife markets in China

In fact, while Chinese government banned wildlife markets in the entire country in 2003 (as SARS started due to these markets), they did not ban wet markets. As a matter of fact, Zhong Nanshan, the biggest expert in pulmonary diseases of China and leader of the fight against both SARS and COVID-19, called for ensuring the ban of wildlife markets, and not wet markets. Zhong Nanshan’s report is important not only because of his authority in the scientific environment, but also due to his past behavior during SARS epidemic, when he was in contrast with Chinese government’s initial passive response.

zhong nanshan, best expert of pulmonary diseases in China and leader of the fight against SARS and COVID-19
Zhong Nanshan, China’s top expert for pulmonary diseases and leader of the fight against SARS and COVID-19. Source: CGTN

In 2020, Chinese government increased its efforts and Wuhan city directly prohibited eating wildlife.
While some may think that wet markets will eventually disappear as China becomes a developed country, the opposite could also be true: supermarket chains are adapting to the wet market model instead of trying to beat it.
For example, Hema, a supermarket chain owned by Alibaba, provides a huge variety of fresh and live seafood providing home delivery as well.

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