Police in China have rescued some 1,000 cats from a truck en route to a slaughterhouse, state-affiliated media has reported, busting part of an illicit trade that fraudulently sells feline meat as pork or mutton and sparking fresh food safety concerns.
Acting on a tip-off by animal activists earlier this month, officers from Zhangjiagang, in the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, intercepted a vehicle used to collect and transport captured cats, according to Chinese state-affiliated news outlet The Paper.
Without the intervention, the batch was likely to be slaughtered and shipped south to be served as pork and lamb skewers as well as sausages, the report said.
Police and agricultural authorities have since sent the cats to a shelter nearby, The Paper said, after foiling a plot that could have raked in as much as $20,500.
The report did not mention whether any arrests had been made, nor whether the cats were strays or pets. CNN has reached out to the Zhangjiagang police and the animal shelter for comment.
The Paper reported that animal activists first noticed a large number of nailed wooden boxes carrying many cats near a cemetery.
They patrolled the streets for six days and when the truck began ferrying the cats to the slaughterhouse, they intervened and called police, the report said.
Images published by The Paper showed rescued cats at the shelter resting in larger cages.
One activist cited by the outlet said the illicit operation can sell a pound of cat meat for around $4 by passing them off as mutton and pork. Each cat weighs about four to five pounds after they are processed.
“Some people will do all it takes because it is profitable,” Gong Jian, an activist who is building a sanctuary for stray felines in Jiangsu, told The Paper.
Another activist Han Jiali, who said she took part in stopping the truck, told the Chinese news outlet that it was not the first time, and that she had stopped similar illicit trades before in Guangdong, a southern Chinese province.
The report triggered a fresh wave of concern over animal rights and food safety on Chinese social media, with many calling for greater scrutiny by the authorities.
The country has struggled with a long history of food and safety scandals in the past.
One recent food scandal that went viral concerned a rat’s head found in a school meal at a college. Local officials originally insisted it was a piece of duck neck, but amid fears of a cover-up provincial investigators were called in and found otherwise.
While China has laws to regulate and protect livestock and endangered animals, there is no general law targeting animal cruelty for pets and stray dogs and cats.
Animal rights and environment groups have long campaigned against the use of animal parts – including from many endangered species – for traditional medicine. There is also growing opposition to an annual dog meat festival in Yulin, in the western autonomous Guangxi region.
“Animals don’t have rights and there is no guarantee for food safety,” one of the hundreds of users who weighed in on the most recent debate wrote.
The topic was viewed five million times on Sunday alone.
Local authorities came under fire in 2021 for the deaths of several pets euthanized after their owners tested positive for Covid. One particular incident, involving a health worker beating a corgi to death with a shovel, triggered an outburst of fury.
“I hope the country can legislate an animal protection law soon,” another user said, referring to the latest scandal.