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China river's dead pig toll passes 13,000 but officials say water quality is 'normal'

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A dead pig is seen in a dirty tributary of the Yangtze River, in central China's Hebei province, some 750 miles from the city of Shanghai, in a photo taken on March 12, 2013. The number of dead pigs found in the Huangpu River, which runs through China's commercial hub Shanghai, has reached more than 13,000, state media reported on March 18.

BEIJING – To the chagrin of Shanghai city residents, there’s more “pork chop soup” on the menu for the foreseeable future. 

More than a week since authorities in Shanghai started pulling thousands of dead pigs from one of the city’s major waterways, the Huangpu River, municipal authorities in that city of 23 million are continuing to pull hundreds of carcasses from its waterways each day, bringing the total since last week to over 13,000. 

Workers on Sunday pulled nearly 500 pigs from the Huangpu, bringing the total found from that river alone to over 9,500. The Huangpu River supplies over a fifth of Shanghai’s drinking water.

As the pig tally creeps up, Shanghai government officials have been struggling to put a positive spin on the ghoulish images popping up each day from the city’s waterways. 

Shanghai is in the process of burning some of the 13,000 pig bodies found in a major waterway. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

A report Monday in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, focused on the stepped up food and water quality tests across the city. It also earnestly noted that not only have the numbers of pigs being pulled from the rivers dropped, but the size of them too.

Citing a report from Shanghai’s city government, the paper stated that two thirds of the most recent carcasses found were piglets, suggesting that the worse may have passed.

Social media outrage
Still, the daily sight of carcasses being pulled from the city’s waterways for disposal has angered the public and sparked a spirited discussion on China’s Twitter-like service, Weibo. 

Reports that many of the pigs found have tested positive for porcine circovirus, a virus that has killed large numbers of pigs in the region in recent months, has also raised suspicions about the safety of Shanghai’s water supply.

“The water must have been polluted [by these dead pigs],” wrote one user named Lujun, “Authorities are being dishonest and trying to hide something.”

“The government is as corrupt as these dead pigs,” another user using the name Ziyoudeweini wrote disgustedly. “I feel so cold. Who can we count on?” 

“Water quality in the Huangpu River has been normal up to now,” one official at the Shanghai Information Office assured NBC News Monday. He also stressed that porcine circovirus cannot be contracted by humans. 

Where are they coming from?
Shanghai officials have stepped up surveillance for dead pigs around the Huangpu River and have called upon local government in the nearby city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang Province to step up their own searches. 

Just northeast of Shanghai, Jiaxing is believed to be the source of many of the dead pigs floating down into Shanghai. Shanghai’s Information Office officials declined to speculate on whether Jiaxing was the sole source of all the pigs, but told NBC News that the prefecture was the focus of a joint Shanghai-Jiaxing investigation.

An official at the Jiaxing Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment on the progress of the investigation late Monday.

But steps were being taken in Jiaxing to curb the continued dumping of pigs into the region’s waterways. The city’s local newspaper, Jiaxing Daily, reported that leaflets had been passed out to farmers in the region, urging them to properly dispose of dead pigs with local authorities rather than quietly dumping them into the river.

Jiaxing is likely not the only community to be dumping dead pigs into its waterways, as reports indicate that porcine circovirus has spiked across farming communities this winter, killing more pigs than usual. Many have speculated that farmers have been attempting to discretely dispose of the sick pigs rather than reporting them to authorities and risk investigation.

NBC News’ Danny Zhang contributed to this report.

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