JIAXING, China — Hard as it may be to believe, the recent discovery of thousands of pig carcasses floating in a river that supplies drinking water to Shanghai may represent an encouraging step forward in Chinese public health.
In May, for example, the police in this hog-producing city arrested four people who had sold dead pigs to slaughterhouses. And in December, a Zhejiang Province court sentenced 17 people to prison sentences, one for life, for processing and selling meat from pigs that had died of various diseases. In less than two years, the group had collected about 77,000 animals.
So, as the authorities have cracked down on people selling diseased or dead pigs, agriculture experts say, it is possible that someone may have decided it was better to dump dead pigs into the river.
If that was the case — and there is no proof right now that it was — a mystery remained: Where did the pigs — 7,545 at last count, with the number still rising — die, and who threw the carcasses into the Huangpu River?
After the pigs began showing up by the thousands in the river last weekend, teams of pitchfork-bearing men fanned out on barges to fish the rotting carcasses out of the water.
With food safety a growing concern in this country, and cities like Shanghai just beginning to enforce new rules that discourage restaurants from using recycled gutter oil, officials moved quickly to assure the public that the city’s water supply met national standards, and that its pork supply was safe.
The city embarked on a major cleanup. Early this week, pig carcasses that had been dragged from the river were buried in deep trenches, and uniformed inspectors lugging suitcases filled with laboratory equipment tested pork samples at outdoor markets throughout the city.
The Ministry of Agriculture announced that it would undertake its own investigation.
One government department suggested that a likely explanation for the deaths was cold weather, even though the Shanghai area rarely gets snow and was in the midst of unusually warm temperatures last week.
The remark provoked ridicule on social networking sites, where some suggested that the comment was as ludicrous as believing that the pigs had engaged in mass suicide.