Zoonotic diseases—also known as zoonoses—are diseases that pass to humans from other animals. Three out of four emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, with many originating in the meat industry.
In the United States and around the world, animals raised for food are kept in filthy, crowded conditions, often without fresh air or sunlight. In these environments, viruses spread easily and rapidly from animal to animal, sometimes leading to dangerous mutations.
Here are five reasons why we should all care about zoonotic diseases:
1. COVID-19 Likely Originated in Animals
The virus behind COVID-19, which has led to millions of deaths and hundreds of millions of infections all over the world, is thought to have originated in a live-animal market. Coronaviruses—several of which are able to jump from animals to humans—can be found in animals like bats, civets, pangolins, and birds.
2. “Mad Cow” Disease Has Killed Hundreds
In the 1980s and 1990s, tens of thousands of cows in the United Kingdom were infected with a pathogen that caused bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow” disease. In an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, 4.4 million cows were killed. Yet meat from infected cattle entered the food supply, and the pathogen caused a similar fatal disease in many people who had eaten contaminated meat. Since the human form of “mad cow,” variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, emerged in 1996, 229 people have died.
3. Hundreds of Thousands Likely Died from “Swine Flu”
In spring 2009, a novel H1N1 influenza virus, known as “swine flu,” was detected in North America. The unique genetic makeup of this H1N1 strain was likely due to the intercontinental transport of live pigs. The new virus circulated among farmed pigs in Mexico before it jumped to humans and triggered a global pandemic. During the first year of the pandemic, scientists estimate, between 151,700 and 575,400 people died as a result of the virus.
4. Bird Flu Is Currently Spreading in the United States
Bird flu was recently detected in the United States for the first time since 2020, emerging at commercial poultry farms in Indiana, Kentucky, and Virginia. Bird flu—also known as avian flu or avian influenza—is caused by a virus that spreads easily among birds. The H5N1 virus is particularly contagious and has run rampant in factory farms, where chickens, turkeys, and other birds are forced to live practically on top of one another. While this disease primarily impacts birds, avian influenza viruses can cause infections in humans.
5. Nearly Two-Thirds of Meat Producers Scored “High Risk” in Pandemic Ranking
In a 2020 report, the FAIRR Initiative analyzed the meat industry and found that 73 percent of the world’s meat producers scored as “high risk” in FAIRR’s “Pandemic Ranking.” The scoring criteria were worker safety, food safety, deforestation and biodiversity management, animal welfare, and antibiotic stewardship. Jeremy Coller, the founder of FAIRR, stated:
Factory farming is both vulnerable to pandemics and guilty of creating them. It’s a self-sabotaging cycle that destroys value and risks lives. To avoid causing the next pandemic, the meat industry must tackle lax safety standards for food and workers alike, closely confined animals, and overused antibiotics. This will disrupt a supply chain already cracking from fundamental land, water, and emissions constraints.
What Can We Do?
Filthy, crowded, and stressful, factory farms are breeding grounds for disease, and industrial animal agriculture presents a persistent threat to public safety. Even the United Nations recognizes the dangers of animal agriculture. In a landmark report, the UN warned that raising animals for food was “one of the most significant contributors to today’s most serious environmental problems.”
An international study conducted by 22 experts even suggested that policymakers consider taxing meat in order to help prevent future pandemics. Zoologist Peter Daszak, who led the study, said:
Over-consumption of meat … [is] bad for our health. It’s unsustainable in terms of environmental impact. It’s also a driver of pandemic risk.
While most of us don’t have the power to tax meat or create sweeping policy changes, we can take a stand in our own lives. You can remove your support from the dangerous, cruel meat industry by choosing more plant-based foods.