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Meat consumption and global pandemics

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
women wearing flu masks, 1918

The 1918 influenza, which killed 150 million people, is believed to have originated on a poultry or pig farm in Kansas

Guest post by Dr. Martin Godwyn, originally published in The Flying Shingle, May 28, 2012:

If you were asked what is the greatest single threat to human life today, what would you say? Certainly, climate change would be a strong contender for that title…turning to a vegetarian or vegan diet is, for most of us, the simplest way to drastically cut our carbon footprint.  But many scientists today believe that there is an even bigger threat to humankind: a global viral pandemic.

To get a sense of just how serious the threat is, consider the fact that the carnage and horror of the first World War killed about 17 million people. Dwarfing that horrendous figure is the “Spanish flu” of 1918 (a version of the H1N1 virus that re-emerged in 2009), which wiped out up to 150 million lives – as much as six per cent of the entire human population!

Scary, huh? But what has any of this to do with eating meat? Whilst the origins of the 1918 flu have not been established with certainty, strong evidence suggests that it originated in either poultry or pigs who were raised for food in Fort Riley, Kansas, and then crossed the species boundary into humans. It is precisely when a virus moves between species that it is at its most deadly, for the new host species typically lacks either an evolutionary or acquired resistance to the virus.

But here is the good news: we really can do something about this threat by simply giving up eating meat. It is (fortunately!) very difficult for viruses to cross species boundaries, but the more frequently two species are in regular and close contact with each other, as inevitably occurs in animal agriculture, the easier it is. Given enough contact, it becomes inevitable.

In short, if, as a species, we continue to raise animals for food, it is simply a
matter of time before a mutation arises in a virus – perhaps in a pig or a chicken –that then crosses into humans, and which is both highly transmissible (as is the cold virus, by sneezing) and highly deadly (as is smallpox).

Now, it is of course possible that somewhere between first noticing a new and deadly strain of a virus and it becoming an uncontrolled global pandemic, we will develop an effective vaccine. Maybe.

But two factors militate against such optimism. Firstly, unlike in 1918, a virus
today can spread worldwide in a matter of days. A sneeze in Toronto on one day can be killing people in Delhi or Hong Kong within a week.

Secondly, some viruses staunchly resist the development of an effective vaccine. There is no vaccine for the common cold, for instance, and despite the billions of dollars and decades of research on HIV, a vaccine has yet to appear.

Yes, maybe we’ll be lucky – but do you really think that we ought to take the chance?

CBS report on antibiotic use

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

CBS News has run a 2-part story on the use of antibiotics in livestock. If you are interested at all in the health implications of animal farming, you will likely find these videos informative.

I have written in the past about some of the health risks of antibiotic resistant diseases that develop as a result of the giant petri dishes these people call “farms.”

Here is a link to part 1:

Animal Antibiotics a Threat?

And part 2:

Antibiotic-free Animals

The situation in Canada is quite likely very similar, since our agricultural systems are virtually identical to the United States, and farmers here are just as free to use antibiotics in animal feed. I will try to write a post specifically about antibiotic use and antibiotic-resistant diseases in Canada in the near future.

MRSA scares the bejeezus out of me

Friday, February 5th, 2010

A giant petri dish

MRSA is an antibiotic-resistant staph infection (a flesh-eating disease) that has been linked to both hospitals and farms.

What do farms and hospitals have in common? They collect a great number of sick or at-risk individuals together in one place, combined with lots and lots of antibiotics. Giving lots of antibiotics leads to the mutation of diseases into forms that are resistant to antibiotics, which could possibly mean that diseases will pop up that are potentially untreatable, or at least extremely difficult to treat.

Health Canada states that “Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an emerging global health issue that, if not addressed, may evolve into one of the most significant public health challenges worldwide.”

I’ve written about MRSA before, but I just read about a new pair of reports that have come out with links between animals and humans and the spread of MRSA. One of the reports is about 3 patients in Spain who have been identified as having that country’s first cases of humans contracting “pig MRSA” (ST398):

The researchers spotted these particular isolates (out of 44 analyzed at the two hospitals in 2006) because they were resistant to tetracycline. Tetracycline resistance is not common among community strains of MRSA, because the drug isn’t the first-line choice for skin and soft-tissue infections; and when it is given, it’s usually for a short course, so the drug does not exert much selection pressure on the bug. But tetracycline is a very common animal antibiotic, and tetracycline resistance is a hallmark of ST398; it is one of the factors that led the Dutch researchers who first identified the strain to take a second look at the bug.

Tetracycline (and related antibiotics) are approved for use in Canadian livestock.

The other report is about an Italian man who contracted a similar flesh-eating disease called “Necrotizing fasciitis”:

Necrotizing fasciitis is a terrible disease: If doctors don’t respond very quickly, it can kill, while the emergency surgery that forestalls death often carves away large areas of flesh or sacrifices entire limbs. This patient was fortunate: He was in the hospital for 31 days, but recovered and went home.

The researchers conclude that “because our patient did not have any other potential risk factor, dairy cows were probably the source of the human infection.”

MRSA doesn’t get a lot of press, but it worries me that it is caused by excessive antibiotic use – and this particular “pig MRSA” is caused by antibiotic use in animals. Farmers are rightly worried that if they don’t give antibiotics to their animals then they will get sick and die prematurely. This is because they keep them in such unhealthy conditions, in confinement, packed in by the thousands into small spaces – conditions that no animal, human or not, could survive in for very long without contracting diseases.

If we want to ensure that the medicines that we’ve developed to fight diseases continue to work, we need to restrict their use as much as possible. Using them to enable animal agriculture, which the world could well do without, is completely irresponsible. This isn’t a case of treating one sick animal every now and then, when they are sick. This is actually a case of creating environments for disease and using antibiotics and other medications to improve weight gain, keep the animals alive long enough to slaughter them, and above all to increase profits.

Anyone who cares about our medical system and the health of everyone on this planet, human or animal, should really be opposed to this use of medications in animals. It’s threatening us all.

In the next few days there will be a report on CBS news about antibiotic use in animal agriculture which should be worth watching. The meat, egg, and dairy industries are vehemently opposed to any restrictions on the use of medications in animals, once again putting the general public at risk.

The meat industry doesn’t care about you or the animals

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Pigs waiting to be auctioned

The more I learn about the industries that exploit animals to be used for food, the more I realize that there is simply no concern for the animals or even for the humans who consume the meat of those animals.

Erik Marcus linked me to an article Martha Rosenberg has just written about the drug ractopamine, which is used in pigs and cattle as they near slaughter to increase weight gain. Ractopamine was originally developed as an asthma medication, and there is no period of time when the animals are taken off of the drug before slaughter.

While researchers and scientists investigate the cause of our diabetes, obesity, asthma and ADHD epidemics, they should ask why the FDA approved a livestock drug banned in 160 nations and responsible for hyperactivity, muscle breakdown and 10 percent mortality in pigs, according to angry farmers who phoned the manufacturer.

The beta agonist ractopamine, a repartitioning agent that increases protein synthesis, was recruited for livestock use when researchers found the drug, used in asthma, made mice more muscular says Beef magazine.

But unlike the growth promoting antibiotics and hormones used in livestock which are withdrawn as the animal nears slaughter, ractopamine is started as the animal nears slaughter. (Source)

And this isn’t just a mild antibiotic. In fact, people are warned to wear gloves and masks if they might come in contact with it:

How does a drug marked, “Not for use in humans. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask” become “safe” in human food? With no washout period? (Source)

In the US, ractopamine is approved for use in pigs, cattle, and turkeys. But wait, you say, we wouldn’t allow a drug like this to be used in Canada! Sorry to disappoint, but Canada is on the same pharmaceutical train as the US, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has approved ractopamine use in pigs and cattle.

Roctopamine is known to cause increased stress in animals and increases the likelihood that animals will arrive as downers at the slaughterhouse. But, even if the death rate increases, the weight gains from the use of ractopamine are great enough that it’s a net benefit to the farmer.

But at a cost of increased suffering for all of the animals, not to mention increased human health risk. Since the drug is given to animals up to the point of being shipped off to slaughter, who knows how much ends up getting washed into groundwater or how much remains in the meat when it is sold?

What’s striking to me is that China and Taiwan have banned the use of ractopamine because of its health risks. They won’t even allow meat into the country that contains traces of the drug. in 2007 a shipment of pig meat from a slaughterhouse in Canada was found to contain ractopamine, and they banned all imports of meat from that slaughterhouse. When China and Taiwan, both countries that have slightly questionable records when it comes to human safety, prohibit the use of a drug because of its health risks, there must be something to it.

And how can you know if the meat you eat has ractopamine in it? Any conventionally raised pigs or cattle may be fed ractopamine. There is no requirement that the farm disclose the use of this drug. It certainly doesn’t make it onto any packaging. How then can anyone make an informed decisions about what (or who) they are eating?

Quite frankly, no matter how carefully we watch the animal exploitation industries (meat, eggs, and dairy included) they are focused on maximizing profit. And the interests of animals and consumers alike are just obstacles to overcome in pursuit of that profit.

Across the internet this past week (late!)

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Sorry I’m late in posting this. I had a busy weekend. So I’m rolling last week and the past couple of days all together for this collection of links to some interesting articles and thought-provoking pieces from across the internet. Don’t miss Lesley’s article about gifting of animals, and also don’t miss Virginia Messina’s articles on the same subject. There’s also a post in here on the new Change.org Animal Welfare Blog, which has been quite good so far. The post is well worth reading and thinking about.


Digging Through the Dirt: Chicken Council Balks at Consumer Reports Study

Vegan Soapbox: Salmonella And Campylobacter Found In Most Chicken

Minneapolis/St. Paul News: Mist of pig brain tissue sickened slaughterhouse workers

USA Today: Why a recall of tainted beef didn’t include school lunches

Fox News: H1N1 Flu Strain Found in Canadian Turkey Flock

Reuters: U.S. finds pandemic H1N1 virus in turkey flock

JAVMA News: Pigs, people, and now, pets

Making Hay: Go Tell it on the Mountain: Think Globally, Act Locally

Peter Fricker: Animal shelters must combine compassion with responsibility

Animal Blawg: Are Seahorses Becoming Extinct?

Vegan.com: Europe Grants Animals Legal Status of Sentient Beings

Vegan Dietician: Promoting Veganism: Finding the Message that Works

Animal Person: On Scheduling Epiphanies . . . and Coral Snakes

Vegan Soapbox: Veganism Is More Than A Personal Choice

Change.org Animal Rights Blog: The Mass Killing of Wildlife for Your Burger, Cheese, and Leather

Digging Through the Dirt: ‘Julie & Julia’ Writer Assaults More Dead Bodies

Vegans of Color: Gender policing has no place in AR/vegan movements

Change.org Animal Welfare Blog: The Globalization of Animal Welfare

Vegan Etsy Blog: Eating Animals: Hiding / Seeking – the fourth chapter of the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

Vegan Etsy Blog: Eating Animals: Influence / Speechlessness – the fifth chapter in the new book by Jonathan Safran Foer

Veg Climate Aliance: CopenVegan

Lesley Fox: If you care about world hunger, don’t give a cow

Seattle Vegan Examiner: Donations to Heifer International may do more harm than good

Seattle Vegan Examiner: Sustainable and ethical choices for reducing world poverty

Making Hay: Holiday Gifts with Compassion

New report on the long-term effects of food poisoning

Monday, November 16th, 2009

The Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention just released a report entitled “Health Outcomes of Selected Foodborne Pathogens (PDF).” It details the known health effects of the five most common foodborne pathogens.

Foodborne disease is a serious public health issue that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), causes tens of millions of acute illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths each year in the United States. While the severity of acute foodborne disease varies greatly, depending on the pathogen and the vulnerability of the person infected, the impact of foodborne illness on children, as well as for the elderly and immune- suppressed (e.g., pregnant women, people undergoing chemotherapy, organ-transplant recipients, HIV/AIDS patients), is more likely to be serious and/or long-lasting.

The primary source of these pathogens is animal agriculture: meat, egg, and dairy production. In the small percentage of cases where vegetables were the source, the pathogens likely entered the food supply via contamination from animals. Any serious work to reduce the numbers of people affected by food poisoning is going to have to think hard about reforming our agricultural system, reducing the number of animals that are farmed, and encouraging a drastic reduction in meat consumption.

Reading from the past week

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Here, in no particular order (except possibly accidentally chronological) is a highlight of some of the articles I’ve read around the internet this past week. There’s a lot about Eating Animals, which I imagine will be in the news (especially animal rights news) for some time yet to come (right now it’s #49 on Amazon.ca, #51 on Amazon.com, and #14 on the NYT hardcover nonfiction bestseller list).


Change.org Animal Rights Blog: Jonathan Safran Foer and Eating and Killing Animals

Vegan Soapbox: Where Jonathan Safran Foer Gets It Wrong

Vegan.com: Wall to Wall Eating Animals Coverage

The Discerning Brute: Ginnifer Goodwin stars in PSAs for Farm Sanctuary, produced by Joshua Katcher

V for Vegan: Intersectionality ‘Round the Interwebs, No. 11: Battered, Bruised & Consumed

Change.org Animal Rights Blog: The Underestimated Compassion and Understanding of Children

Huffington Post: Children’s Health And The Meat Industry

LA Times: Healthy Vegetarian Kids

Digging through the Dirt: Pigs to Get Swine-Flu Vaccine

Peta University of Utah Lab Investigation (troubling treatment of research animals, including animals purchased from local shelters.)

Animal Person: On Not Eating Animals

Animal Blawg: The Pig, The CAFO, & The Flu (Links to some great stories about pigs, plus the cutest pig picture you’ve ever seen.)

Peter Fricker: Pharmaceutical cruelty in your ham sandwich

Animal Person: On Peaceable Kingdom, Part Deux

Filthy Feed & downer cattle

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

I read yesterday on Vegan.com about a new site called “Filthy Feed” that “exposes and seeks to end the practice of feeding broiler litter (read: chicken shit) to cattle.”

This is pretty gross, and I can’t believe that this practice still goes on. I wonder how much of that meat makes it up here to Canada?

Canada has had a ban against the feeding of poultry and litter to ruminants for many years now (our ban went into effect around 1997). Our little bout with mad cow disease was the real reason for this. It seems that we were feeding out cattle remains to chickens and turkeys, and there’s too much risk that the poultry litter (the hay or straw and shit on the floor of the barn, plus feathers and the carcasses of the chickens who didn’t make it the full 6 weeks) might contain some undigested remains of a cow.

I understand that farms face the prospect of losing money pretty much all the time (and likely wouldn’t survive if they weren’t massively subsidized through cheap feed, etc), but who really first came up with the idea of scraping up all this shit and waste and grinding it up to add to food for other animals?

Strangely, for all our concern with mad cow disease, Canada has not banned the slaughter of downer animals. The regulations only state that animals may not be transported if they are too sick to walk, but nothing is said about slaughtering them if they can be induced to enter the truck under their own power. (source)

So, we can’t feed chicken waste to cattle, but we can slaughter cows who are too sick to walk into the slaughterhouse (who are more likely to have mad cow as well). Are we really working to prevent mad cow and protect human health or just choosing easy actions that don’t really have any effect on the practices ofthe meat industry that put us all at risk?

How long until we seriously shoot ourselves in the foot?

Sunday, July 26th, 2009
There's nothing safe about meat.

There's nothing safe about meat.

The meat industry is gambling with human lives by using antibiotics in livestock.

The unfortunate fact is that on today’s intensive farming operations, antibiotics are necessary to keep the animals from all getting sick and dying. The only problem is that bacteria mutate rapidly and antibiotic resistant strains pop up here and there.

In an article from Grist, “Antibiotic-resistant salmonella burgers, with a side of flame retardants“, we learn of a recall of tainted meat: “In Colorado, 14 people have fallen ill from hamburger meat tainted with antibiotic-resistent salmonella”.

466,236 pounds of meat were recalled.

The article goes on to describe in detail the rampant antibiotic use in livestock production, and how it is threatening human health.

So are we any safer in Canada? Probably not. Antibiotics are used in livestock in Canada as well, and MRSA (antibiotic resistant staph infections) has been found on pig farms in Canada. In fact, the Canadian beef industry has been lobbying to allow for the import of unregulated antibiotics from the United States – with no thought as to the potential for creating antibiotic resistance bacteria through overuse of the antibiotics.

We need to change our food system before it kills us all.