Fresh food markets — where people can buy fruits and vegetables and sometimes seafood and meat — are popular in many places around the world. But "wet markets" are unique to Asian countries. In some of these places, fish, poultry, snakes and other animals are slaughtered on site. Sometimes there are more exotic wild animals — like hedgehogs and rabbits — for sale, too.

They're called wet markets because they always have wet floors from the continually melting blocks of ice used to keep seafood fresh. Stall keepers also clean their areas by continually spraying them down with water, according to the Singapore National Heritage Society.

Authorities say COVID-19, the new coronavirus that has killed more than 75,000 people, has been linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China. Local media outlets reported that the market also sold snakes, marmots, monkeys and other animals. This sparked concerns that the virus was transmitted from animals to humans.

Why wet markets exist in modern times

Hosing down at Khlong Toei market in Bangkok, Thailand. Hosing down at Khlong Toei market in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Kevin Hellon/Shutterstock.com)

Markets are often divided into two areas: wet and dry. In the wet area, fresh produce, meat and sometimes live animals are sold. The dry area has booths selling spices, noodles, beans and rice. There may also be stalls in the dry area that sell clothing, toys and household goods, reports The New York Times.

Wet markets are the main outlet for fresh produce and meat in Chinese cities, and a large city might have a few hundred wet markets, Zhenzhong Si, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, tells NPR.

Despite the growth of modern supermarkets and grocery stores, these traditional markets remain popular with local consumers who believe that the fresher the meat, the better it is.

A fall 2019 study in the journal Agriculture and Human Values found that wet markets "create a sense of freshness that resonates with this culinary culture through their sensoria, atmosphere, and trust between food vendors and consumers."

Home refrigeration has only become widespread in recent years in China, The Guardian reports. Although people in urban areas have refrigerators, many in rural and low-income areas do not. So for practical reasons, it's easier to buy fresh meat that can be prepared immediately.

Plus, some of those who were raised to cook and eat this way say the taste is superior.

"Freshly killed hens are much better than frozen meat in supermarkets, if you want to make perfect chicken soup," a 60-year-old woman named Ran told Bloomberg while shopping at a Chinese wet market. "The flavor is richer."

Wet market controversy

People wearing protective masks purchase meat at a market in Hong Kong in late January. People wearing protective masks purchase meat at a market in Hong Kong in late January. (Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Along with all the tradition, wet markets come with controversy.

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) — which is also part of the coronavirus family — killed 774 people in 29 countries between 2002 and 2003. It likely originated in wet markets in the Guangdong province of southern China. It was believed to have jumped to humans from civet cats and other animals that were being sold for consumption. Those animals likely picked up the virus from bats, according to studies like this one in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

After the SARS outbreak, wet markets were more closely monitored, with China tightly regulating the sale of wild animals for about six months, according to the Associated Press. Those who know where to look can often find vendors covertly selling all sorts of live animals, the news outlet reports, including pangolins, badgers, salamanders, scorpions, hedgehogs and wolf puppies.

The sale of these animals is speeding up the extinction of many species, the AP reports. Even though vendors might have licenses to sell some species, many of the animals are being poached illegally.

Media outlets have reported a photo of a menu list from the Wuhan wet market at the center of the current outbreak. It shows more than 110 animal species for sale. That market was shut down Jan. 1 and remains closed.

In mid-January, Chinese authorities temporarily banned the trade of wild animals due to the new coronavirus outbreak, which meant no wildlife was allowed to be transported or sold in any markets or online until the epidemic is resolved. However, in April, some markets in China began to reopen, much to the dismay of health experts.

Some experts have been calling for the temporary ban on wildlife markets to be made permanent for both environmental and health safety reasons.

"[They] should shut down those things right away," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, said in early April interview shared by The Hill. "It just boggles my mind that when we have so many diseases that emanate out of that unusual human-animal interface that we don't just shut it down."

The United Nations' biodiversity chief strongly concurred, but said there must be alternatives in place or it could result in an explosion of the illegal animal trade.

"It would be good to ban the live animal markets as China has done and some countries. But we should also remember you have communities, particularly from low-income rural areas, particularly in Africa, which are dependent on wild animals to sustain the livelihoods of millions of people," Elizabeth Maruma Mrema told The Guardian. "So unless we get alternatives for these communities, there might be a danger of opening up illegal trade in wild animals which currently is already leading us to the brink of extinction for some species. We need to look at how we balance that and really close the hole of illegal trade in the future."

Wet market culture

Chickens for sale at a wet market in Shanghai. Live chickens and pigeons seen for sale at a wet market in Shanghai in 2011. (Photo: Dhi [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

Even outside of health concerns, the idea of wet markets and selling live and freshly slaughtered animals is unfathomable to people who don't understand the culture.

"When I'm talking with my students I say, 'The term warm meat, fresh meat, sounds disgusting to me, I grew up [in Germany] with chilled meat, that's all I know," Dirk Pfeiffer, a professor of veterinary medicine at City University in Hong Kong, tells The Guardian. "So I ask them why and they come up with all sorts of vague things like the soup tastes better or that it is a trust issue, knowing it is a live animal at the other end and not some diseased animal. It's all very subjective."

Si from University of Waterloo tells NPR that reasons can range from nutrition to health to showing off affluence.

"Eating wild animal is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. And wild animals is also considered more natural and, thus, nutritious, compared to farmed meat," he says. "Of course, some people eat wild animals just because they were driven by curiosity."

Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was published in January 2020.

Mary Jo DiLonardo covers a wide range of topics focused on nature, health, science and anything that helps make the world a better place.

Understanding the tradition of wet markets
These fresh food marketplaces are a cultural connecting point that sell live and dead animals, but they have been linked to increased risk of disease.