How animal agriculture could contribute to pandemics — and solutions to prevent it


by Graysen Golter, KXAN News (TX)

Nov 18, 2020


AUSTIN (KXAN) — The warning signs of the harm the food industry has the potential to cause were apparent long before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a University of Texas at Austin researcher. And he wouldn’t blame organizations that have tried to sound the alarm from saying, “I told you so.”


“We’ve been dodging bullets for so long that it’s felt like an entitlement,” said Raj Patel, a research professor at UT Austin and an expert on world food systems, about the United States being affected by a pandemic. “It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve finally been hit by one. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of organizations, who have in the past said, ‘Look, it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming…’ have finally earned the right through this horrible tragedy… to say, ‘I told you so.'”


The agriculture and trade of animals can increase the risk for viruses transmitted from animals to humans, according to a September report from American nonprofit The Humane Society of the United States’ international division.


Aspects of animal agriculture — such as the global trade of animals, keeping animals closely packed in factories and animals’ weakened immune systems due to stress — are some of the risk factors that could contribute to future pandemics, according to the report. The air travel of animals and live animal markets in urban areas can also increase the opportunities for viruses to spread. The exact source of the coronavirus is unknown but has likely origins in bats, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


The coronavirus is an example of a Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, virus outbreak. Other types of SARS viruses have hit other parts of the world before, Patel said. He pointed out examples such as Mexico’s swine flu outbreak in 2009 at a plant that was 50% owned by the food processing company Smithfield Foods Inc., which is based in Virginia.


Hannah Thompson-Weeman, the vice president of communications at the nonprofit Animal Agriculture Alliance, said people should understand that the animal agriculture industry “does have public health top of mind.”


“There are some misconceptions about, particularly, the scale of farms and how that contributes to public health,” Thompson-Weeman said. “Biosecurity, preventing disease — preventing disease from spreading among animals themselves is constantly a priority among animal agriculture, and there’s really nothing to substantiate any connection between the current pandemic and food animal production.”


She said antibiotics and larger, indoor facilities can be used responsibly and that meat isn’t the only industry where facilities see outbreaks.


Patel said the United States is overdue for feeling the effects of a pandemic, but that’s not the only aspect of the system it can work to address.


He said it’s not just animals that can potentially be mistreated in the food industry but people as well, such as those who have been hurt or died because of workplace accidents or lack of sanitation within the industrial meat system.


“Two amputations per week was what was normal in the slaughterhouse business in the United States before COVID,” Patel said. “That’s not a normal anyone wants to get back to. There were tens of millions of people who were food insecure under the old normal. If we’re interested in this sort of transformed food system then it will join the dots between hunger, worker rights, animal agriculture and zoonotic diseases.”


Thompson-Weeman said issues of workers rights and safety generally falls outside the realm of what the Animal Agriculture Alliance focuses on, but said, “Certainly worker health and safety is really essential to the industry, you know. We rely on those really front-line heroes who are keeping plants operational and making sure that the food system is flowing. Plants have taken measures to make sure that they are keeping their employees as safe as possible.”


She adds that issues such as the environment and workers’ rights may not always factor into consumer mindsets but she encourages people to seek out that kind of information and research to better inform their own decision-making, as consumer demand is what the industry will adapt to.


Patel said it is not impossible for the U.S. to make changes to its food system. He said European countries have decreased their frequency of meat consumption while still working to pay employees fairly.


Callie Ward, a communications representative for the Texas Animal Health Commission, did not share a specific response or action the commission would take in response to the Humane Society’s report but said TAHC is committed to supporting and bridging the health of people, animals and the environment.


“The Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) was established in 1893 as the Livestock Sanitary Commission and charged with protecting the state’s domestic animals ‘from all contagious or infectious diseases of a malignant character,'” Ward said in an email. “TAHC remains true to this charge while evolving with the times to protect the health and marketability of all Texas livestock and poultry. The TAHC will continue to fight to protect animal health and the zoonotic diseases deemed reportable, while also working alongside our human health and environmental partners.”


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