Diseases and factory farming

Despite how mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and avian influenza have been in the news for years, I’ve never seen any coverage that explicitly makes the connection between industrial factory farming and the emergence of these diseases. While things like close human-animal contact in the developing world seem to be important when considering outbreaks of influenza, it is entirely a product of an industrial farming system that turns cows into cannibals that BSE has emerged as a threat to human health at all. BSE is a prion illness that spreads between cows when they are fed portions of the brains and spinal cords of their dead brethren. The fact that it keeps cropping up means that this is continuing to happen.

I don’t doubt that if people were aware of the realities of where the bulk of humanly consumed meat comes from, there would be a lot more people wary about eating it – on environmental, health, and hygienic grounds. On the disease front, people should at least acknowledge the dangers inherent to keeping thousands of closely packed animals together, all of them on hormones and other drugs to make them grow faster. Additionally, the constant use of antibiotics to try to suppress disease among populations of factory farmed animals contributes to the emergence of bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics. Food animals have also been genetically weakened over time as they have been both ‘standardized’ so as to produce single definitive variants and bred for qualities like the quantity of a certain kind of meat they produce, rather than being able to resist diseases or even function on their own.

A lot of people seem to take the attitude that “given that I want to eat meat, and I am dimly aware that learning about where it comes from may put me off it, I will resist learning about where it comes from.” While psychologically understandable, such approaches do not live up to the standard of good sense, or due diligence with regards to how we behave as individuals and societies.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

22 thoughts on “Diseases and factory farming”

  1. While factory farming is admittedly non-ideal, you are ignoring the tangible benefits it does provide: most notably in terms of lower food costs for everybody. Since the poor spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food, rises in prices are likely to harm them most. Furthermore, the availability of low cost meat and dairy provides critical protein to millions of people.

  2. Canadian authorities have confirmed a new case of mad cow disease – in the western province of British Columbia. Your home turf.

  3. Yes, the cost of meat is so low that people can eat so much of it that it gives them cancer, heart disease, and stroke! The benefits are very tangible… for the health care industry.

    I find it ironic that in order to slow the spread of bird flu, farmers are being forced to move their birds inside, which of course creates a far worse breeding ground for diseases. They should be forcing factory farmers to let their birds run around outside where they can get healthy and build up their immune systems. The culls are a mistake too–they should wait and see if any survive, and start over with those birds that are naturally resistant.

  4. “The culls are a mistake too–they should wait and see if any survive, and start over with those birds that are naturally resistant.”

    Once a proportion of a bird farm is infected, the only thing you can hope to do is slaughter the lot of them before the infection becomes epidemic within that population. No matter how much faith you have in evolution, it doesn’t act quickly enough to deal with a new illness within such a small population base – especially among birds with health as poor as that of most factory farmed animals.

  5. @Sylvia,

    Given the number of people who could die in a bird flu pandemic, it does seem like large scale elimination of animals within infected populations is the prudent approach to containment. Given the extent to which nobody wants to buy poultry from countries where bird flu cases are being reported, it seems unlikely that some portion of a particular farm could or should be saved.

    Remember, the 1918 Spanish Flu killed about 20 million people worldwide. It’s not a thing to mess around with, for the sake of a few five dollar chickens.

  6. The sentence “The fact that it keeps cropping up means that this is continuing to happen” is rather misleading. The disease can lie dormant for 10 or more years. The recent cases in the US have involved cows that were alive before the ban on feeding ruminant byproducts to cows. Thus, there is no evidence of this continuing to happen, at least in countries with bans.

  7. “Given the number of people who could die in a bird flu pandemic, it does seem like large scale elimination of animals within infected populations is the prudent approach to containment.”

    There is nothing to contain… yet. The bird flu kills only birds, and an extremely small number of people who live and work with sick birds or eat birds they find dead. It would be prudent to let the disease weed out susceptible birds *before* it becomes a real human health hazard. Killing naturally resistant birds along with the susceptible birds is a missed opportunity to fight the disease before it even gets to us. Those resistant birds might help us develop a vaccine too.

  8. Sylvia,

    That’s possible, though the strain everyone is most worried about now does kill humans, it just cannot pass directly from infected human to infected human. That’s the mutation that could make it into a pandemic.

  9. We must be careful when we say the H5N1 strain “does kill humans.” It has killed a few scores of people out of the many thousands (millions?) who raise fowl. A chicken farmer is far more likely to die in a thousand other ways (including the regular flu) than by bird flu. It’s not something to be afraid of at present. The time to use breeding to fight it is now, before it is becomes significant threat to human health (if it ever does, which no one can say for sure).

  10. Sylvia,

    I agree that H5N1 is simply one among a very great many risks. Even so, recognizing that viruses evolve (and mutate) at a much higher rate than chickens, I don’t see how exposing them to one another in hopes of fostering resistance on the part of the chickens is a good strategy.

    The examples of plague and smallpox have shown that diseases can be effectively eliminated through concerted action. That should be especially easy when you are dealing with animals that can be arbitrarily relocated, isolated, or killed.

  11. Anyhow, for some reason – probably exam related stress – both of these threads (oil and factory farming) are really annoying me at the moment. I am therefore resolved to ignore them completely until I am in a happier state of mind. I have rather more pressing things to be anxious about, in any case.

  12. Riding piggyback

    Nov 29th 2007
    From The Economist print edition
    Farm animals are infecting people with a new strain of superbug

    FILTHY surroundings that are home to a population fed on antibiotics provide the ideal breeding grounds for superbugs. But badly run hospitals are not the only such places. Farms where animals are reared intensively also provide an incubator for drug-resistant diseases. Recent research suggests that veterinary surgeons and farmers in Europe and Canada may be picking up potentially fatal infections from pigs and possibly cattle.

  13. In the presence of drugs, pathogens have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to inactivate these compounds (e.g. by pumping out compounds, mutating residues required for the compound to bind, etc.), and they do so at a rate that far exceeds the pace of new development of drugs. Examples include drug resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella pneumonia, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) among bacterium and HIV-1 among viruses. Indeed, no new antibiotics have been developed against TB in thirty years. Efforts to develop new antibiotics by the pharmaceutical industry by large-scale screens of chemical libraries which inhibit bacterial growth have largely failed, and new tetracycline and sulfanilamide analogs will likely engender resistance and will quickly be rendered useless.

  14. ‘Disturbing’ drug-resistant superbug gene has been detected in Canada
    The alarming drug-resistance gene MCR-1 that was first detected in China in November has been found in meat sold in Ontario in 2010, the Star has learned. The gene grants bacteria like E. coli resistance to colistin, a powerful antibiotic of last resort.

    An alarming new superbug gene that makes bacteria resistant to a last-resort antibiotic has been detected in Canada, the Star has learned.

    The gene, called MCR-1, produces an enzyme that makes bacteria invincible to colistin, a highly toxic antibiotic used only when all other drugs have failed.

    MCR-1 was first reported in November by scientists in China, who published a paper in The Lancet that set off alarm bells across the globe. Analyzing bacterial samples in southeastern China, researchers found 260 samples of E. coli with the MCR-1 gene on meat, hospital patients and farm animals — the likely source of this new superbug, the paper suggests.

    Colistin is still rarely used in human medicine because doctors want to conserve the antibiotic’s effectiveness. But polymyxins are often given to livestock animals to prevent infections and promote growth — especially in China, one of the world’s highest users of colistin in agriculture. (While colistin isn’t used in agriculture in Canada, polymyxin B — a similar compound that creates the same resistance problems as colistin — is.)

    In 2015, the global market for colistin in agriculture reached nearly 12,000 tonnes and is expected to rise to 16,500 tonnes by 2021, according to the Lancet paper. “That’s insane,” said Dr. Gerry Wright, a microbiologist with McMaster University and expert in antibiotic resistance.

  15. Dr Wang knew from previous reports that fish farmers who had not used antibiotics for years, or had never used them at all, still had sediment in their marine farms carrying bacteria with many of the genes associated with drug resistance. The genes had to be getting into the bacteria somehow; one possible pathway was through antibiotic-resistance genes in fish food mingling in various ways with bacteria in the sediment.
    Latest updates

    Working with a team of colleagues, Dr Wang set up an experiment to find out if that was the case. As they report in Environmental Science and Technology, the researchers obtained five commonly used fishmeal products and subjected each one to a detailed genetic analysis. This revealed the presence of 132 drug-resistance genes, suggesting that heavy antibiotic use on the fish products which are themselves ground up into fishmeal formulations, was behind the transfer of genes.

    The results were clear. Although the control microcosms started with some resistance genes present (as there is bound to be in nature) the number did not increase. In contrast, the number of resistance genes present in the microcosms exposed to the Peruvian fishmeal increased tenfold.

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