On Monday, the Chinese government rushed to stamp out speculation that a deadly new strain of bird flu, which killed two people in Shanghai and sickened others, could be linked to the mysterious dead pigs soaking in the nearby Huangpu river ("No bird flu virus found in dead pigs," the state-run news agency Xinhua declared). And for good reason: In China -- the only country known to maintain a strategic pork reserve -- anything that threatens the nation's pig supply is also a threat to its social stability. But Laurie Garrett, writing in Foreign Policy, isn't so sure about the government's denials. "This could be how pandemics begin," she warns.
The Chinese have long flocked to the other white meat: a 1960 agricultural survey found that farmers were raising more than 100 indigenous pig breeds across the country, from chilly Heilongjiang province in the northeast to the Tibetan plateau in the west. Mao Zedong's favorite dish was red-braised pork, a Hunan speciality. But pork in China has come a long way since the days of backyard farming, when each rural family would raise one or two pigs a year for its own consumption. In 2010, China produced 50 million metric tons of pork -- twice the amount produced in all the EU countries combined, five times the amount produced in the United States, and almost half of that year's global total of 101.5 million metric tons. That year, the Chinese consumed pork at an average rate of 37.1 kilograms per person.
The spike in production capacity has created new health and safety issues: Authorities do battle with the black market for diseased pigs, illegal slaughterhouses, pollution generated by large-scale farms, and the price fluctuations of a volatile world pork market. Here's a look at the sometimes gruesome, sometimes stunning images associated with China's love affair with pork.
Above, a pig looks over its pen on a pig farm on the outskirts of Beijing in April 2009.