Animal Food Industry Poses Foodborne Disease Risk to U.S. Consumers: Report

Researchers warn there is little regulation or oversight of the U.S. livestock and wild animal markets, increasing the risk of a zoonotic disease transmission to humans.

The animal industry in the United States, including both food production and the exotic pet trade, poses a threat to human health and may be the source of the next pandemic, according to a new health report.

More infectious diseases originated in the U.S. than any other country in the world during the second half of the 20th century, according to researchers from Harvard Law School and New York University, who recently released a new report, Animal Markets and Zoonotic Disease in the United States.

The U.S. produces more than 10 billion land animals for food every year. However, agriculture, fur farming, and the exotic pet trade may lead to the spread of untreatable diseases to humans, the report warns.

Researchers indicate the United States is not equipped to prevent a disease outbreak stemming from zoonotic transmission, or the spread of disease from animals to humans.

Health Risks from Animal Industry Underappreciated

The United States is the world’s largest importer of livestock and wild animals. More than 220 million live wild animals are imported annually.

More pigs and poultry are produced in the U.S. than in any other country; two animals that are the primary carriers of different strains of the flu. There are 130 live bird markets in the northeastern United States, and 25 million birds pass through the country each year. However, despite the vast animal industries in the U.S., there is little regulation and oversight, the researchers warn.

Data on the size and location of animal industries was largely untracked prior to the pandemic, and while some records are now kept, much is still unknown. However, diseases spread from animals to humans account for 60% of all known infectious diseases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For this latest report, researchers compiled data by analyzing 36 animal industries in the U.S., including dog breeding, hunting and trapping, livestock auctions, backyard chicken farming, and petting zoos. They conducted interviews with experts and reviewed scientific research, public data, and government regulations. The study also focused on factors like diseases animals are known to carry and frequent interactions with humans.

According to the findings, in 2023 alone there were multiple outbreaks of highly contagious bird flu at live bird markets in the U.S. In addition, swine flu easily spreads to humans, including during the H1N1 virus of 2009 that infected more than 100 million Americans and hospitalized over 900,000 people.

The U.S. was the source of the deadliest outbreak in recent history – the 1918 flu pandemic, which infected 500 million people and killed 12 times as many people as the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The origins of COVID-19 are still widely debated, but credible research indicates it originated from animals and spread to humans in wet markets. Wet markets aren’t foreign to the U.S., with more than 40 in New York State alone.

The report warns that preventing a global pandemic is a problem that the United States should also consider. And the U.S. has no strategy to prevent an outbreak, especially one that originates from livestock or other animal trades on domestic soil.

Researchers emphasize a need for more regulation and better public education concerning the food industry and other animal trades, warning that the spread of disease from animals to humans is a problem which must be addressed.

The researchers called for a full risk assessment of animal industries in the U.S. to help find preventions and solutions before the next outbreak occurs.

The new report is part of a larger project that began in 2020 to assess zoonotic disease risks posed by animal industries in 15 countries. The complete global report will be published later this year.


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