Beijing butchers have reported pork sales are down by two-thirds following rumors that the meat in the capital contained a virus could lead to brain disease.
A month before the beginning of the Year of the Pig, a mobile phone text message was circulated saying, "Do not eat pork at the moment. Pork in Beijing has been contaminated by a virus that can cause encephalitis, which can damage the brain."
Other versions of the message claimed that an insider from China's Ministry of Health had broken the news, and that presidents from all major Beijing-based hospitals were conferring for a solution.
The Beijing municipal government officially refuted the rumor on January 13.
"It is not true. Pork sold in Beijing has been tested by strict standards. It can be eaten," Beijing Youth Daily quoted Zhao Chunhui, deputy director with the municipal health bureau, as saying.
He Xiong, deputy director with the Beijing Center for Disease Control and Prevention stressed there was no medical evidence suggesting that digestion of the pork could lead to the brain disease, while Sun Xianze, director with China's State Food and Drug Administration, assured the public that the text message is nothing more than a rumor.
But the government's assurances have fallen on the deaf ears of many Beijing residents. China Daily reported cases of Beijingers, who had eaten pork, suffering psychosomatic attacks - complaining of an upset stomach or an imaginary pain. Their suspicion is a result of a string of food safety scares that have rocked Beijing, and indeed the whole of China, in recent months.
A total of 160 people in Beijing contracted a parasitic disease after eating raw or undercooked snails in a restaurant between last June and October.
Last December, a sample test showed that a carcinogenic red dye, Sudan IV, was confirmed to exist in salted red-yolk eggs in Beijing markets, according to the municipal food safety office.