Coronavirus — blame the unhygienic meat industry

PT Jyothi Datta | Updated on January 28, 2020

Instead of culling animals once there is an outbreak, the more civilised thing to do is to examine the trade

It was on an uninvited visit to a slaughterhouse many years ago, that a disturbing truth was revealed. That humans working and living in these areas lived in as despicable a condition as they kept the animals.

The unmistakable stale stench that hung oppressively, the wet boggy ground and the lack of medical officers to check if the animals being brought in were sick or diseased. It was a classic recipe for disaster. The message from these squalor-filled human and animal co-habitations was ominous. Ensure hygiene and better farm practices in the meat industry, if you don’t want to have disease-ridden meat coming to your table or viruses jumping species and mutating dangerously to infect and kill humans.

This grim truth has reared its head again as the international scientific community now investigates the source of the mutating Coronavirus and governments scramble to keep their people safe from it.

Early reports from China’s Wuhan, the deadly ground zero from where the Coronavirus has spread, points to the sea-food market as a possible source. Scientific reports point to the usual suspects as the possible source of the virus — bats, snakes and the exotic live wild animals housed there. In fact, with the Coronavirus threatening to mutate and cause greater damage, the Chinese health officials have banned the trade of wild animals, at least for the time being.

Earlier cases

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that meat and farm practices are causing a health hazard. In the UK (1980s), the “mad cow” disease resulted from a cannibalistic non-vegetarian feed of crushed meat and bones that was given to cows, who are herbivores. The disease that affected the nervous system of cows triggered health concerns in humans as well in the early 2000s.

In 2003, China was in the eye of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) storm that spread from its Guangdong province, where the source of the virus was linked to civets. Close on its heels, came bird flu in 2005. But to date, in India for instance, it is not uncommon to see poultry transported and housed in filthy carriers and vans or hanging upside down from cycle handle-bars.

In 2009, swine flu raised concerns on the conditions in pig-farms in Mexico. Ebola was traced to handling uncooked bushmeat or wild meat in Africa. And closer home, the Nipah virus jumped species possibly because of proximity to the bat’s habitat, and maybe even consumption of half-eaten fruits that had been bat-bitten, virologists then explained.

So it’s not without reason that there’s the “One health” concept that intertwines the well-being of humans and animals. It’s in the human race’s interest to ensure that animals are treated well, their habitats not encroached and that farm practices are cleaned up.


Unhealthy practices

The meat and poultry industry is presently in the news for its adverse impact on climate, besides ethical anti-cruelty reasons. And if these were not good enough reasons for the industry to clean-up its act and for governments to ensure good practices, then add health and the threat of epidemics to the list.

The World Health Organisation defines the Coronavirus as a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). And the novel coronavirus, seen in China, is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. These viruses are zoonotic, in that they will jump species from animals to humans.

Instead of culling birds, pigs, etc., once there is an outbreak, the more civilised thing to do is to have hygienic farms, cages, etc., and ensure better farm practices including transportation for these animals. There is really no reason not to give an animal its space, water and hygiene, however short-lived its life.

Undesirable effects

Doctors explain that an animal or bird in a constrained, stressed environment and watching another being killed will have undesirable reactions within itself. And it is meat got from such unhealthy practices that make it to your food markets.

The world already deals with food-borne illnesses and anti-microbial resistance, caused by over-use of antibiotics in animals by the food industry. As for the Coronavirus, scientists say it has not yet shown the dangerous dimensions of SARS. But there’s no saying that may not change tomorrow.

So if there is a time for health, food, agriculture and animal husbandry agencies to collaborate and implement global, transparent and not to forget humane practices when dealing with animals — that time is now.

Published on January 28, 2020

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