Restaurateurs in a southern Chinese town held an annual dog meat festival Monday despite international criticism of the event as cruel and unhygienic.

The Yulin government distanced itself from the festival and announced new restrictions, but eateries reached by telephone reported brisk business during the event ostensibly held to mark the summer solstice.

Restaurant owners say eating dog meat is traditional during the summer, while animal rights activists say the festival has no cultural value and was merely invented to drum up business.

As many as 10,000 dogs, many of them stolen pets, are slaughtered for the festival held deep inside the largely rural and poor Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Apparently concerned about the adverse publicity, the local government disavows any ties to the event, issuing a statement saying it did not officially sponsor or promote the festival. It said authorities would tightly control public order and punish any incidents of stealing or poisoning dogs. Traders would no longer be permitted to slaughter dogs in public, place carcasses on display or serve meals outdoors, it said.

Despite such restrictions, restaurant owners said the festival continued to attract enthusiasts for the dish.

"Eating dog meat is a local tradition, it has nothing to do with the local government," said a receptionist at the Longmen Dog Meat Restaurant reached by phone.

Celebrities such as British comedian Ricky Gervais and Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen have called for an end to the festival, and more than 3 million people have signed petitions protesting it, according to Shareeza Bhola, communications manager for change.org.

Dog is eaten in some parts of China but is not a common dish. Owning dogs as pets was discouraged under early Communist Party rule but has become increasingly popular among the Chinese public, especially the urban middle class.