Confining animals is a dirty business that spreads disease. The coronavirus pandemic brings into stark relief what the unclean business of animal confinement can unleash on the world.

This is why it’s time to socially distance ourselves from meat.

Here in Maine, across the nation and around the world, animals that are penned, caged or otherwise confined together provide fertile breeding grounds for pathogens such as parasites, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Viruses are the pathogens that cause influenza. The current SARS-CoV-2 virus (a coronavirus strain that causes the COVID-19 respiratory illness) is just the latest pathogen scientists say evolved where animals are confined.

Others zoonotic pathogens – deadly microscopic organisms that spread from animals to humans – include swine flu, avian influenza, SARS, MERS, salmonella, Listeria, E. coli and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Modern factory farms and feedlots are the zoonotic organism’s best friend. Animals confined before slaughter exist in stressful, cramped spaces where pathogens spread quickly and mutate readily.

In fact, scientists theorize that influenza emerged 4,000 years ago in China after ducks were first domesticated.

This latest pandemic is linked to a wet market in Wuhan, China, where live animals (both wild and domesticated) are confined and then killed. But live animal markets also operate in the U.S. In New York City, a Change.org petition is circulating urging officials to shutter all live animal markets in that city.

Five hundred years ago, China and Europe were already engaging in the culture practice of confining and slaughtering animals, but scholars say that the nations of the pre-Columbian Americas domesticated few animals and most, including the Wabanaki nations here in Maine, likely had diets that were largely plant-based. As more Europeans arrived, their zoonotic diseases including measles and smallpox traveled with them.

The increasing virulence of zoonotic pathogens created by the meat industry has been chronicled by scientists for decades. Today, our health is at risk because of the animal confinement facilities we’ve allowed to fester too long.

Here in the U.S., geneticists traced the ancestry of the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak to intensive pig confinement facilities in North Carolina. I once worked in North Carolina to address environmental issues created by the hog farms,  and I can tell you the stench surrounds these industrial operations for miles, while inside the holding pens, pigs stand in their own waste and are packed so tightly they can’t turn around.

In 2010, a salmonella outbreak sickened up to 62,000 people, according to government estimates, and led to the recall of 550 million eggs. The salmonella was traced back to the Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms hen confinement facilities in Iowa. Some of the facilities implicated were owned by DeCoster Egg Farms. Investigators found salmonella bacteria in the feed, the egg wash water, on numerous surfaces and in the manure.

DeCoster owner Austin ‘Jack’ DeCoster and his son were charged with selling contaminated food and sentenced to three months in jail. Afterwards, Jack DeCoster leased his Maine farms to Hillandale Farms. (Throughout the 1980s, DeCoster eggs from multiple confinement facilities had spread salmonella, including in 1987 when hospital patients in New York were sickened.)

In 2018, contaminated romaine lettuce caused a nationwide outbreak of deadly E. coli and triggered a massive lettuce recall. Public health officials struggled to find the source of the pathogenic bacteria because tests kept leading back to different lettuce processing plants. Later that year, NPR followed the twisting epidemiological trail scientists took to find the source of the pathogen. No surprise here: The trail ended at a 100,000-head cattle feedlot.

In a press release, the Food and Drug Administration stated that a large concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) near a contaminated irrigation canal was a “potential source” of the contamination. The feedlot and lettuce farms remain in operation, though the farms have voluntarily increased the distance between the two.

This past fall, there was yet another E. coli outbreak connected with lettuce. Researchers have yet to pinpoint the source.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, other factors contributing to the emergence of zoonosis and the increased virulence of zoonotic pathogens include deforestation, climate change, the poorly regulated wildlife trade and the increasing threat of antibiotic resistance.

Meat-eating is a driver of all four.

Even here in pristine Maine, animals are confined across the state. Pineland Farms confines at least 2,000 cattle at a feedlot in Fort Fairfield. A Google maps image shows several adjacent muddy lots where the cows are penned. The Flood Brothers Farm confines more than 3,000 dairy cows in Clinton. Hillandale Farms (the former DeCoster Egg Farm) confines some 1 million caged hens in barns in Turner, Leeds and Winthrop. All three of these farms must file confined animal feeding operation discharge permits with the state. And along Maine’s coast, a number of corporations are seeking permits to build land-based fish confinement facilities.

The Maine Center for Disease Control’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus Fact Sheet warns residents who must travel to: “Avoid animals (alive or dead) and animal products. This includes uncooked meat.”

That’s excellent advice. But it’s time to take it a step further and advise everyone to avoid meat, unless it’s used as part of a mostly plant-based diet, as a seasoning or side dish. Meat-based diets are a public health threat, and we must actively embrace plant-based eating.

As long as we humans continue our dirty habit of confining animals and then eating them, zoonotic diseases like COVID-19, E. coli, salmonella and swine flu will continue to evolve and spread.

If we can socially distance ourselves from our family, friends and livelihoods, we surely have the strength of character to socially distance ourselves from meat.

Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AveryYaleKamila


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