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

Coronavirus
Chickens in a pasture at Dewberry Hills Farm in Lexington, Texas (Courtesy Jane Levan)

Chickens in a pasture at Dewberry Hills Farm in Lexington, Texas (Courtesy Jane Levan)

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.

This photo taken on April 15, 2020 shows barriers at the closed Huanan Seafood Market where the COVID-19 coronavirus is believed to have emerged in Wuhan in Chinas central Hubei province. - China's "wet" markets have gained a bad international reputation as the coronavirus roiling the world is believed to have been born in stalls selling live game in Wuhan late last year. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on April 15, 2020 shows barriers at the closed Huanan Seafood Market where the COVID-19 coronavirus is believed to have emerged in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province. (Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

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.”

Exploring a local farming solution

Jane Levan, co-owner of the Dewberry Hills Farms in Austin with her husband Terry, said she was against the large-scale, intensive farming of animals and said it was possible to responsibly process meat without risking the spread of viruses or abusing animals, people or the environment. She said some of the ways they do this is by raising their chickens outside and moving their tents daily so that the animals aren’t sitting in their own excrement and the surrounding environment isn’t overwhelmed.

“I firmly believe that you cannot raise your birds in crowded and cramped situations in buildings and not be a vector for disease,” Levan said.

Checking tents at animal farm
Co-owners Terry (left) and Jane Levan (right) at the Dewberry Hills Farms check a field tent where they are raising chickens (Courtesy Jane Levan)

Levan said the roughly 15-person farm has yet to have a case of COVID-19 with their workers despite not having the space to social distance six feet apart in buildings. She said her employees are not required to come to work if they feel sick.

She contrasted their situation with what happened at a beef processing facility in Cactus, Texas, in April, where dozens of workers became infected with COVID-19.

“The big problems they had at the processing plants… was that people were being forced to work, or were afraid to call in sick when they were running fevers,” Levan said. “They were being transported in buses… that weren’t sanitized.”

The exact cause for the outbreak at the Cactus plant, owned by JBS Beef, is unknown, and the company worked with the Texas Department of State Health Services afterwards to implement new recommendations, including testing employees.

Whether large scale or small, Thompson-Weeman said the Animal Agriculture Alliance doesn’t take a stance of elevating one production method over the other, but does say no matter what, they should be following best practice guidelines.

“Our stance at the Alliance is that size isn’t everything,” Thompson-Weeman said. “Production can be done well at the large scale. It can be done poorly at the large scale and small scale. It can be done well at the small scale. They’re really trade-offs for everything, so a system like you mentioned where animals are being raised outside that can pose a lot of disease risks as well that are almost eliminated by animals being raised in more indoor type systems. So there are constantly trade-offs. It’s really not as simple to say that everyone needs to raise food in a certain way.”

Levan said that even their experience still came with challenges and uncertainties. She said many of the animals they process arrive with bacteria such as salmonella which they have to address. And, while there is much that is unknown about the coronavirus, she is certain the philosophy they’ve been using since before the pandemic will sustain them.

“I think that there is very limited understanding of this virus, but I do think we already have a good, working scientific model for how to raise everything from human beings to pigs in a healthy manner,” Levan said. “No overexposure to antibiotics. Clean living conditions. Good, nutritious food.”

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