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To Prevent the Next Pandemic, We Need Meaningful Oversight of Animal Agribusiness

We must act now to protect animals, workers, and public health from the meat industry. 

The vast number of crowded, stressed animals held captive on US factory farms presents ample opportunities for pathogens to practice spreading directly from animal to animal, and indirectly through flies, rodents, manure, and workers moving between barns. (Photo: CC)

The vast number of crowded, stressed animals held captive on US factory farms presents ample opportunities for pathogens to practice spreading directly from animal to animal, and indirectly through flies, rodents, manure, and workers moving between barns. (Photo: CC)

We're all hoping that the current COVID-19 crisis will subside in a few months: that treatments, testing, and supplies will become available, and strict social distancing can safely ease. That may happen, but the threat of the next pandemic--an even deadlier one--is present now. We must recognize and address the root cause of this threat. We must reform the industry that is putting us all at risk in the name of profit: industrial animal agriculture. 

The WHO has said that the first human case of SARS-CoV-2 probably came from a bat, through an unidentified intermediate animal who was then handled by humans. A likely venue for this transmission was a "wet market" in China, where various species of animals come in close contact with each other and with the humans slaughtering them. We were warned about bats carrying the next SARS pandemic in 2013

We must modernize our food system by dismantling animal agriculture and transitioning to plant-based meat alternatives and clean meat.

We've also been warned about the risk that bird flu outbreaks in poultry flocks worldwide pose for the next human pandemic. Among the most concerning of the avian influenza is H7N9, a pathogen with a 40% fatality rate. The vast number of crowded, stressed animals held captive on US factory farms presents ample opportunities for pathogens to practice spreading directly from animal to animal, and indirectly through flies, rodents, manure, and workers moving between barns. It is even possible for aerosolized pathogens to spread between barns miles away through the air. 

One would hope that an industry that presents such an enormous potential threat to public health would take its food safety responsibility seriously. But it doesn't, and seems to be doing everything it can to demonstrate that. Privatizing safety inspections for the purpose of increasing line speeds at slaughterhouses has been a joint goal of the meat industry and the USDA for decades, despite the risk it poses to food safety. Even though faster line speed makes the process much harder on the animals and on workers, and means more carcasses to inspect for safety in less time, the industry pushes for it in the name of profit. Incredibly, the USDA is approving faster line speeds right now

Earlier this month, a line speed waiver was given to Foster Farms, which has a history of producing salmonella-contaminated chicken linked to outbreaks in 29 states. As of last Friday, the Food Safety Inspection Service is no longer issuing waivers, because they're proposing a blanket cap increase for all plants. The fast line speeds are the reason that workers at slaughter plants can't socially distance at work, making one of the most hazardous, low-paid jobs in the country even more dangerous. The bare minimum we should ask from industry and the Department of Agriculture is that slaughter line speeds are capped to allow safe distances between workers and complete safety inspection of animal carcasses. 

If a slower, smaller meat industry were an outcome of this pandemic, it would not be a crisis, it would be progress. Sales of meat alternatives have increased 200% during the pandemic. This is only going to increase as more people realize that meat is not essential. Animal-borne illnesses such as COVID-19 are predicted to drive 17% growth in the plant based meat market between now and 2021. 

Ultimately, we must modernize our food system by dismantling animal agriculture and transitioning to plant-based meat alternatives and clean meat. But in the short term, meat production isn't going anywhere, and the meat industry has demonstrated that it has no intention of acting responsibly when it comes to animals, workers, or public health. We must listen to the warnings this time. We need meaningful oversight now.

Mark Middleton

Mark Middleton is Board Chair of The Humane League, a global nonprofit that exists to fix our broken food system and end the abuse of animals raised for food.

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