Whether or not mad pig disease is waiting to strike pork connoisseurs, rumors of an outbreak and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s warning against eating pigs—right before the Chinese New Year—have been enough to make pork vendors queasy.
“This upsets us very much. The government’s announcement is killing us,” said Kim Eng, 50, at her booth in Phsar Chas, which was lined with unsold slabs of the glistening pink meat.
Around Phnom Penh, pork vendors reported plummeting sales.
“After the television announcement, sales went down. I used to sell 40 kg per day, but today I’ve only sold about 10 kg,” said Sek Thary, 26, at Phsar Kandal.
The latest rumors of mad pig disease, which Hun Sen addressed Wednesday by advising Cambodians to avoid pork, have had a bigger impact than similar rumors several months ago, vendors said.
“We are afraid that we will lose profits again because the Chinese New Year is coming, but no one is coming to buy pork,” Sek Thary said.
At both Phsar Chas and Phsar Kandal, pork booths stood idle, the sharpened cleavers resting against barely used cutting boards, while all around, customers haggled over fish, beef and chicken.
For some vendors, concern over lost income turned to anger against the government.
“Why did the government make this announcement? In the past, they tested pork before it was sent to market. Why are they worried now?” asked Sek Nary, 44, who reported selling only 20 kg Thursday, compared to regular sales of around 50 kg.
As Sek Nary spoke, a colleague raced up to her booth, brandishing a government certificate smeared with lard and blood, certifying her pork as safe.
So-called mad pig disease, officially known as Nipah viral encephalitis, was first identified in 1999. According to the Web site of the US Centers for Disease Control, the Nipah virus is a type of encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, that killed at least 105 people in Malaysia and Singapore in early 1999. Of the 257 Malaysians infected, most reported having physical contact with pigs before their illness. The disease was contained in 1999 when Malaysia slaughtered nearly a million pigs and shut down slaughterhouses, the CDC stated.
Rumors circulated in Cambodia in December 1999 that infected pork had been smuggled into this country.
Hun Sen said Wednesday he had heard rumors that infected pigs had been smuggled in from Thailand, and that Cambodians “must be careful.”
“I haven’t eaten pork for a few days,” Hun Sen said.
Following his remarks, the government announced it would begin testing pork. As of Thursday evening, officials were still testing the meat, Health Minister Hong Sun Huot said.
The government’s actions have been reckless and thoughtless, vendor Kim Eng said.
“The ministers don’t raise pigs,” she said, adding that she only bought 50 kg of pork after Hun Sen’s announcement, compared with her usual daily order of 80 kg, because she expected sales to drop off.
Her assurances that Cambodian pigs are safe have persuaded only regular customers to buy from her, Kim Eng said.
All the vendors said they hoped the government would clear the air—and their product—soon. The consequences of a prolonged scare, they said, could be dire.
“If I don’t sell pork, I cannot feed my family,” Sek Thary said. “This rumor will make us poor.”