I for one was buoyed by the daily COVID-19 press conferences when they started.
After months of refusing to play with the media, here was a newly candid and communicative PM, flanked by experts, projecting leadership, accountability and honesty. He said the right things and deferred when appropriate to those who know better. He knew we were worried about virus testing, the NHS, business survivability, the self-employed and the impact on vulnerable people on their own – and had plans to deal with all.
The behavioural scientists were all over it like a rash too. Key messages about staying at home, protecting the NHS, saving lives, restated daily in different formats and colours. Timings were orchestrated for optimum response from the population, creating new social norms. I felt safe and looked after in this brave new world of open communication.
But the reality is no longer delivering on the promise, and the warning signs are being ignored.
As the press conferences have worn on, the format has worn out. In the daily dance of statistics, manufactured empathy for the families of those who have died, and now graphs (please, someone ditch that logarithmic scale, it just underplays the issue), the press questions are becoming boringly repetitive. Why? They are not being answered. And when people stop answering questions, that becomes a bigger story than what is being said.
Anyone who has watched that ever-painful 1997 Jeremy Paxman interview with Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, asking “Did you threaten to overrule him?” 12 times, knows what happens when you don’t answer a question. It gets asked again. And again. And again.
Not answering is not a win for the interviewee. At best it generates a feeling of discomfort among observers, like a persistent itch in the back of the skull. At worst it swivels a spotlight to the area you want to avoid. A big flashing neon sign which fires the starting gun for a relentless media to double their efforts to uncover whatever dark and dirty secret lies beneath.
I blame poor media training for turning the nightly press briefing into this stilted, cringeworthy affair. Training so focused on avoiding a slip or undeliverable promise that all authenticity is driven out. What is so bad about the numbers of NHS staff off work that it can’t be shared? Why is there no answer for who leads Government if the key players are struck down? What are the real reasons for lack of testing when reagent companies offering product are being unearthed by media on a daily basis? Even the marvellous deputy CMO Jenny Harries, who showed early glimpses of authenticity, seems to have been reined in by the machine from answering questions candidly.
So now I suspect many of us sit nightly, toes curling, willing the right words into the mouths of the politicians and scientists to satisfy the questions. I get that this may mean sharing the pain of what they are dealing with, but that’s OK. This is a horrendous, wicked problem that loses whatever way you turn. I don’t doubt for a second that Government is doing its best to save lives and save businesses, making decisions we don’t always understand based on a raft of information we have no access to.
But one thing you can guarantee in life alongside death and taxes is if you leave a void, someone will fill it with misinformation you don’t want out there. It time for Government to step up and fill that gap – not the armchair epidemiologists or conspiracy theorists out in daily-increasing numbers on social media, picking apart the carcass of their strategy.
It’s devastating, but maybe unsurprising, that COVID-19 is being exploited by animal campaigners. While some may argue the end justifies the means, disinformation serves no one.
Leading the charge with a baffling sense of impunity is PETA, with others paraphrasing its statements in a series of copycat articles. While PETA stops short of lying outright, it weaves together enough facts from different contexts to present a completely distorted but disturbingly believable case.
Let’s pick apart PETA’s claims:
PETA: What’s the link between meat and the coronavirus? PETA has long warned about the health risks associated with eating meat. After all, raising animals for food in filthy conditions is a breeding ground for diseases that can be transmitted to humans.
The facts: The link is that COVID-19, as this coronavirus is called, has been traced back to a ‘wet’ market for meat in China and associated with the sale of live wild bats for human consumption. It categorically has not been linked in any way to farmed meat. But let’s pick up the thread on transmission of disease from ‘raising’ animals a bit later.
PETA: Can I get COVID-19 from eating meat? The World Health Organization says, “To protect yourself, such as when visiting live animal markets, avoid direct contact with animals and surfaces in contact with animals. Ensure good food safety practices at all times. Handle raw meat, milk or animal organs with care to avoid contamination of uncooked foods and avoid consuming raw or undercooked animal products.”
The facts: This is standard good practice when in contact with any animal, whether pet, farm or wild. It’s why we worm our dogs and make sure our meat is properly cooked. There is no evidence whatsoever that COVID-19 is being transmitted from any other animals than the bats originally identified. The World Health organisation confirms that animal sources of COVID-19 have not been confirmed.
PETA: Is it safe to eat meat during the coronavirus outbreak? You should stay away from animal-derived foods at all times for many reasons!
The facts: None of the ‘reasons’ PETA presents have anything to do with COVID-19…
PETA: Is the meat industry responsible for the coronavirus? We can’t ignore the link between meat and outbreaks of diseases like COVID-19. Humans’ insatiable demand for meat, eggs, and dairy means that huge numbers of animals are reared in intensive confinement in giant, filthy warehouses.
The facts: No evidence offered that COVID-19 has any link to farmed animals. But we will pick up PETA’s assertions about farming standards shortly…
PETA: Where did the coronavirus come from? Public health experts believe COVID-19 originated at a “wet market” in China, where vendors sell both live and dead animals for human consumption. COVID-19 is similar to the outbreaks of SARS and MERS: All three spread from animals to humans.
The facts: Correct, they are what we called zoonoses, where disease spreads from animals to humans. But COVID-19 has come from a wild (i.e. unfarmed) animal; SARS, which has seen 774 deaths globally since its peak in 2002-4, is also believed to have come from bats; and MERS, thought to have derived from dromedary camels used for transport in the Middle East, has caused 858 deaths in total.
PETA: Have other diseases come from eating meat? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting people began as diseases in animals.” Swine flu—which is linked to pigs—has killed thousands of people worldwide. And bird flu (or avian flu) is a disease that can spread easily on a crowded chicken farm. There are at least 144 different strains of bird flu. The H5N1 variety kills the most birds and is deadly to humans, killing about 60% of those who catch it.
The facts: Here we roll up our sleeves to deal with the subject of zoonoses. What PETA conveniently doesn’t explain is that the vast numbers of illnesses or deaths from zoonoses come from pets, wild animals, or via pests. Of those than come from farm animals, most are in developing countries where animals live closely with their keepers or where animal health and food safety standards are radically different from those demanded in developed countries.
A 2010 paper from Lembo et al shows the death toll of the key zoonoses annually. The big killers are rabies (hosted by a number of animals but mainly dogs), leishmaniasis (transmitted by sand flies, but hosted by mainly from dogs but also hares or rabbits, goats, rodents and cats), and HAT or trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness) which is endemic in Africa. Animals can host the human pathogen parasites for Trypanosomiasis, and both wild and domestic animals, including cattle, can be an important reservoir.
Source: Lembo et al, 2010
After the above paper was written, swine flu – or H1N1pdm09 – emerged and was estimated to be responsible for over half a million deaths in 2009 (pdm09 denoting its pandemic status in that year).
However, the history of this virus in interesting. The 1918 deadly influenza pandemic was also caused by H1N1, and infected approximately 500 million people around the world and caused the death of roughly 50-100 million people. According to a review of the disease from Jilani et al in 2019, the H1N1 variant of swine flu is the progeny of the strain that caused the 1918 flu pandemic. Although persisting in pigs, the descendant variants of the 1918 virus have also been known to infect humans, contributing to the yearly seasonal epidemics of influenza. Direct transmission of the virus from pigs to humans is a rare occurrence, with only 12 documented cases in the United States since 2005. The 2009 H1N1 virus was not zoonotic swine flu because it was not transferred from pigs to humans. Instead, it spread through airborne droplets from human to human, and potentially, through human contact with inanimate objects contaminated with the virus and transferred to the eyes or nose.
In summary, of course we need to be careful around animals. This has always been the case and always will be. Animals harbour a range of pathogens that can infect humans, and we also harbour some than can infect animals because zoonoses work both ways. The main ones connected with food – that we take steps to control by handling and cooking food properly, and observing standard hygiene rules – are campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli.
PETA: What is the meat industry’s role in the emergence of superbugs? In addition to serving as breeding grounds for viruses, the crowded, filthy conditions on farms allow bacteria to spread quickly. Farmers feed animals on today’s farms a regimen of antibiotics to try to minimize sickness or to promote unnatural growth. Did you know that animals on farms consume more antibiotics every year than humans do? Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics as a result of overuse. This contributes to the emergence of “superbugs”—new, aggressive pathogens. Now, the drugs used to keep animals on farms alive are making humans sick.
Rolling our sleeves even higher…
The facts: Here PETA makes the leap from its non-existent case linking farming and COVID-19, to antibiotic resistance or AMR (antimicrobial resistance). So let’s deal with that now. In summary, use of antibiotics in farm animals is one of the factors we need to pay attention to in the growing global challenge of AMR, but it is not the main cause of antibiotic-resistant illnesses in humans, a fact with which both the UK health authorities (UK 5 Year Antimicrobial Resistance Strategy 2013) and the European Medicines Agency (CVMP Strategy on Antimicrobials 2016-2020) agree.
To start with, any crowded conditions increase disease risk. Just look at schools, planes and office environments where people can gather to swap germs. The move to implement social distancing amid the COVID-19 outbreak illustrates this. But it is unacceptable for antibiotics to be used routinely to prevent disease breaking out when animals are kept like this.
Globally, it has estimated that 70-80% of antibiotics are used to treat animals, much of which is for growth promotion but with a likely additional effect of suppressing disease. However, use of antibiotics for growth promotion has been banned in Europe since 2006 and is now, thankfully, being phased out in many other countries as well as sales becoming increasingly controlled by prescription, as they have been for decades in the UK. Global use should start to fall thanks to these interventions, but bear in mind the unintended consequences; high use in developing countries has sometimes been instrumental in containing animal disease that would otherwise devastate the livelihoods of millions of people.
So what role does antibiotic use in livestock play in antibiotic-resistant disease in humans?
1/ Bacteria develop resistance naturally when exposed to threat, so any use of antibiotic risks the development of resistance. The more antibiotics are used, the more resistance can develop. The fact that farming globally uses most of the antibiotics means it probably is generating significant amounts of resistance genes in the environment around us, alongside other sources such as human sewage and waste. Note – and this is a very important point – the development of resistance genes is not the same as the development of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. But it is very important we control this in the environment as such a reservoir of resistance genes poses a serious long term health threat to us all.
2/ Direct transmission of resistant bacteria from farm animals to humans can happen, but the genes need to be present in the animal, transfer to the human via food or contact and overcoming standard hygiene and food safety measures along the way, then actually colonise the human (not that easy) to cause disease.
3/ When this transmission does happen, it’s mainly in foodborne pathogens, such as campylobacter and salmonella, which more easily colonise people. Even so, the links between resistance in the bacteria in the animals and resistance in the human infection are not clear. The infection needs to be resistant to multiple antibiotics to become a drug-resistant infection. Don’t get us wrong, developing salmonellosis or campylobacteriosis is unpleasant at any time, whether the infecting bacteria are resistant to treatment or not, which is why standard hygiene and food preparation practices are important as they virtually eliminate risk. Most people who develop an infection from foodborne pathogens recover without needing antibiotic treatment, but some do need treatment and specific drugs that vulnerable groups rely on have been radically cut back or stopped in veterinary medicine to help preserve their efficacy. It’s also worth noting that in the UK, efforts by the Food Standards Agency and retailers to work with the poultry meat industry to reduce the reservoir of campylobacter bacteria on chickens in farms have been extremely successful, resulting in healthier birds and lower risk of bacterial contamination. This has helped towards the 80% fall in antibiotic use achieved by the poultry meat sector in recent years.
4/ Other infections that can occur include Livestock-Associated MRSA, which is not the same as MRSA you acquire in hospitals or the community. LA-MRSA can exist on some farm workers, for example in their noses, but rarely colonises them or causes illness.
5/ E. coli is the final pathogen we will mention that affects humans, with some claiming that antibiotic-resistant E. coli infections are coming from farm animals or their products. While the discovery of plasmids that confer resistance explains some of this, there is growing evidence that the links are not strong.
The UK has halved farm animal antibiotic sales in the past 5 years and has among the lowest sales in Europe. Yes there’s more to do – we need to get better at management, biosecurity and welfare. But the whole point of farm animal production and the extensive regulatory framework that covers it in developed countries, including strict health rules and withdrawal periods after veterinary treatment as well as surveillance and testing, is it is SAFE.
So in summary, the COVID-19 crisis has led to some small grains of truth being opportunistically and very irresponsibly woven into a narrative by PETA and other animal rights campaigners. They may see the crisis as a chance to woo more supporters, but it’s interesting to see that the food products moving most swiftly off the shelves in panic buying are meat and milk, suggesting people still find comfort and faith in our most basic and essential of nutritious food products.…
‘Binarizing’ is our new thing. There’s no longer any ‘grey’, ‘sometimes’, or ‘depends on the circumstances’. Everything must be one thing or the other. You must be a Remainer or Leaver, a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, and your attitudes towards race, religion, economics, diet, animals and who should win the Great British Bake Off are revealed by that one simple choice.
Food has not escaped. All foods are now ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for us.
Currently, all animal products are officially ‘bad’. They give us cancer, heart attacks and strokes; why Macmillan Cancer Support even jumped on the bandwagon and held a sponsored ‘Meat Free March‘.
Farm animals also use all our water, damn ’em, hence various water companies have been advocating cutting back on meat, seemingly convinced by NGO Waterwise that it’s the right on thing to do (cue hasty retractions from Welsh Water among others).
And farm animals are destroying the planet by ‘belching toxic methane into our environment contributing up to 51% of greenhouse gas emissions’ according to a number of pressure groups who shall remain nameless simply because I don’t want to give them any more publicity on top of the ill-gotten profile they’ve already secured through their abuse of science.
But life is simply not that simple.
We can satisfy our yearnings for animals to be roaming free in wildflower meadows but that doesn’t feed many people, increases costs (making some foods unobtainable), and has a higher carbon cost per kg of food produced.
We can adopt highly intensive farming as it’s usually the most cost-effective and carbon-efficient, producing more calories and protein per unit of input than any other option. But while food should be affordable, does making it too cheap lead to over-consumption and waste? These systems need to be well-managed too or environmental or animal welfare challenges can arise, for example has the feed been produced from sustainable sources, how is the waste managed to avoid pollution and what is the water footprint? Some people are also intuitively uncomfortable with what they see as the ‘commoditisation’ of animals on more intensive farms, so will widescale adoption of these systems risk hastening any move towards vegan diets….?
…which leads us to plant-based. We can switch to a vegan diet but that’s not the best use of land, losing food production from vast tracts of the world that cannot grow human-edible food. Animal production incurs an element of waste as feed is converted into food, but increasing crop production without animals to eat by-products or produce manure is wasteful too. Cropping is not without its toll on wildlife, and bear in mind that small scale livestock farming provides essential daily income and nutrition to millions in developing countries.
We can stop eating beef, lamb and dairy to lower the evil methane eructations that are allegedly warming the planet (despite consensus that rising methane levels are not coming from agriculture) but much of this production is actually in wetter areas of the country where rainfall cuts water footprint dramatically and land can’t be used for much else – certainly not growing avocados. It would be harder to consume nutrients such as amino acid lysine, calcium and B vitamins in adequate amounts without cattle and sheep making it available for us – plus these animals are superb at recycling plant matter back into soil carbon and nutrients via their giant fermenting vat rumens, supporting rich biodiverse species in the process.
We could reduce pork and chicken, the world’s two most intensively farmed animal species, thus addressing widely expressed concerns about ‘factory farming’ and welfare, but these are by far the most efficient converters of feed into meat hence the recommendations from the UK government’s Committee on Climate Change for swapping beef and lamb for intensively produced chicken and pork.
It’s a mind-blowing and truly wicked problem, and one which has no perfect solution.
The conclusion? We will only find the optimum (not perfect) path by putting aside ideological entrenchment on single issues and looking at the whole problem in its entirely.
We need to abandon our binary ‘good’ and ‘bad’ labelling by system or input or purported impact on health when eating completely unrealistic quantities, and instead analyse the outcomes; all systems and all types of farming can generate a range of outcomes – some good and some bad – and these are affected enormously by how and where the farming happens and the quantities and balance of the resulting food eaten.
And finally, we need to accept there are different ways of achieving the best results – being prescriptive about the methods may satisfy pressure groups, but focusing instead on the end results fosters much-needed innovation and ensures we are focusing on what really matters.
Not long ago, here in the UK, livestock farming was being lambasted on an almost daily basis over antibiotics.
Apparently, animals were being ‘pumped’ full of the stuff – we were literally shovelling these precious medicines down the throats of livestock of all shapes and sizes. Furthermore, this was single-handedly causing the crisis of drug resistant infections in humans.
Or so the media reports and activist groups claimed.
Science had very little daylight in these arguments. Careful juxtaposition of figures about antibiotic use in animals next to facts about drug resistant infections in humans hinted at completely unsubstantiated links. Cries that 80% of antibiotics are used in livestock, with much of this as subtherapeutic doses for growth promotion, lazily omitted any geographical context or clarification. Then antibiotic use got confused with the risk of antibiotic residues in food and antibiotic resistance, leading to celebrities like Moby claiming that 75% of global antibiotic resistance comes from animals. Er, no.
The problem with all this hot air is it was actually counterproductive for a long long time. The livestock industry got itself into such a position of entrenched resistance it wouldn’t entertain that maybe there were some issues that needed addressing.
Wind this forward several years and the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture (RUMA) Alliance, which I am proud to work with, has helped turn this around.
By pushing back against misinformation while taking responsibility where it was needed, RUMA supported the industry in ditching the siege mentality and giving it the space to look at what did need to change. It helped draw lines between fact and fiction, supported the development of plans to target unnecessary or inappropriate use of antibiotics, and facilitated what has so far been a 40% reduction in five years. Of added help were the experiences of the poultry meat sector, which had made its enlightened move to do this several years earlier.
The industry has now planted a flag on the areas it need to address, clarified the science on the areas it is being incorrectly blamed for (eg, the majority of human healthcare issues with AMR are coming from medical not animal use of antibiotics, but we are part of the equation), and has joined in a more constructive One Health approach with the human healthcare sector and (shortly) the environmental sector.
Longer term, engagement on this issue has ended up being wholly productive. While the UK started from a considerably better place than many countries, we still had many weak spots of unnecessary or even inappropriate use. Addressing these has meant scrutiny of practices and changes to improve the underlying health of animals, biosecurity, infrastructure and management. We now have sector-specific plans in place and are on track to have halved use overall by 2020 with animal health and welfare the worthy beneficiary.
What does this have to do with climate change, you might ask? It strikes me that we are now in almost exactly the same position regarding greenhouse gases as we were with antibiotics several years ago.
The signs are that
a) it is incredibly hard to find accurate facts, with claims lacking rigour and consistency pushed by one side being met with equally skewed figures on the other
b) livestock is becoming the popular whipping boy for the issue to the exclusion of almost every other cause, and
c) the flack is leading to a siege mentality which is becoming completely counterproductive.
And as with antibiotics, if we are to make progress we will d) need to work together and find a range of truly sustainable solutions that accommodate trade-offs, unintended consequences and the vagaries of human behaviour.
So I propose this. Having seen this fascinating post on a New Zealand dairy farmer’s engagement on the issue today, I think UK farming as a whole (because tillage and manures for arable farming are part of the equation) should create a Sustainable Agricultural Gas Emissions Mitigation Alliance (SAGEMA, if you will) to start getting science back in the debate while being open and honest about the issues and failings that need addressing.
And maybe, like RUMA can, in five years’ time we will be able to look back from a far more comfortable and reputationally sustainable position.
Picture: cows at the Ellinbank Dairy Research Centre in Victoria, Australia, wear backpacks that measure their methane output. Credit Eddie Jim/Fairfax Syndication
Let’s get one thing straight. A label on a food product should be accurate, meaningful and representative of what it claims. After all, it’s a communication tool to help consumers.
And that’s what’s so wrong with ‘method of production’ labelling proposals so beloved at the moment by a consortium of animal welfare campaign groups.
They are currently homing in on Defra’s proposal for “The future for food, farming and the environment”, out for consultation until 8 May. And they can scent blood. Because not only does the consultation ask about the accuracy of food labelling, but the issue is being rather successfully positioned at the moment as a pet topic of Secretary of State Michael Gove.
The consortium wants mandatory ‘method of production labelling’ which will tell people whether those animals have been outside or stayed in during their life or production cycle.
And what’s the problem with that? Surveys show people value animals having outside access and relate to many intrinsic pleasures such as interaction with nature or feeling the sun on your skin. A conversation with an uninformed member of the public will more often than not reveal the same sentiment.
My beef is this. Outdoor access has the potential to contribute to good welfare, but it does not make good welfare – and in fact can mask poor welfare. While the stated aim of campaigners is transparency for the consumer, the ambition is to create an easy proxy for welfare. And that is wrong.
Take this example.
Almost all cows in the UK are housed for at least 5-6 months of the winter. Some cow housing can be poor simply because it’s outdated, has bad infrastructure to handle slurry and waste, or uses cubicle beds which are just too small for today’s bigger-framed cow. The issues with this type of housing are well documented in science. It can cause lameness, mastitis and lesions where the cow rubs continually against struts and poorly positioned barriers. So allowing those cows outside for 6-7 months of the year provides a welcome respite and opportunities to remedy these issues.
Consider newer state-of-the-art housing. It has comfort cubicles, a dry and airy environment, rubber flooring and plenty of space and light. When the cows are turned out there is rarely any change in their health as they accumulate no issues during the housing period. Furthermore, they show less inclination to go out when offered the choice.
Now imagine the cows in the first scenario are turned out for 6-7 months each year, and in the second, for just 1-2 months. What is the determinant of better health and welfare – the length of the period the cows go out, or the quality of their housing?
It’s not straightforward. Being outside can offer a level of behavioural enrichment that’s hard to match where cows are housed continually. But behavioural enrichment is not, as many welfare campaign groups seem to suggest, all that matters. Welfare is about a good life, so pleasure, enjoyment and contentment. But it’s also about freedom from pain, hunger, thirst and fear. And it’s about company of one’s own kind (hey all you owners of single dogs, cats and horses out there….!).
Cows on extended grazing systems can suffer from the extreme effects of the weather such as heat stress in summer and exposure in winter – as we have found recently. They are at greater risk of exposure to parasites and some pathogens, and can fail to take in enough feed to maintain their weight. Cows in housing can have a greater risk of lameness, mastitis and lesions as outlined in the example above – and can also lack behavioural stimulation. While good management can mitigate almost all risks in either, poor management can also exacerbate them.
This conundrum extends beyond dairy cows. Free range eggs have enjoyed a surge in demand but science says barn or caged eggs may provide better health and welfare. Bird flu is also an ongoing threat to free range flocks, and pigs in outdoor systems can suffer greater mortality. Admittedly, there’s no greater indicator of poor health than death.
This tells me we are measuring apples to try and get pears, and we need to go back to the drawing board. To know the quality of health and welfare, we need to measure how healthy and happy an animal is. To know the level of outdoor access (which is a closer proxy for a ‘naturalness’ than it is welfare), we need to measure how long they spend outdoors. When the consortium, Labelling Matters, states “scientific research shows that certain intensive production systems are intrinsically incapable of delivering high welfare outcomes”, I say: “maybe”… but neither should we assume outdoor access is intrinsically capable of delivering them.
So here’s a proposal.
Let’s get rid of all the crap, meaningless labelling where fake farm names are used. Let’s not suggest through words or pictures that animals go outside if they don’t. But let’s also stop using terms like ‘intensive’ and ‘factory farming’, which are just as misleading as ‘grass-fed’ or ‘farm fresh’.
Where the legal minimum is met, let’s just not label it. No quality label means legal UK minimum for all foods, whether homegrown or imported. Simple.
Let’s call food British when it is genuinely from the UK. Not Irish, or slaughtered in the UK, but reared and milked or laying or slaughtered in the UK.
Let’s make sure Red Tractor is above legal minimum if we are going to use it. And producers who don’t meet the standard get barred from the scheme.
Then where we can separate the supply chain and charge the extra costs of doing so, let’s firstly have a health and welfare assessment label that looks wholly at outcome measures for how healthy, happy and enriched the animal is. Alongside that – and only alongside that otherwise it will be as misleading as ‘farm fresh’ – have a label declaring the amount of outside access that animal has had.
We have the intelligence, we have the measures. Let’s now inject some sense into this debate.