As governments around the world implement never-before-seen measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, animal agriculture continues to pose a direct threat to public health. In Europe, animal welfare organizations are taking matters into their own hands.
On March 16, the European Commission published guidelines encouraging the ongoing transport of live animals between member states, despite the severe health risk these journeys present for industry workers and their communities during the pandemic. Just three days later, the Commission received a letter signed by 37 different animal welfare organizations urging all EU countries to severely limit the transport of animals between member states and suspend live animal export to non-EU countries. The letter reads:
“Schools, businesses, stores are closed, airlines have cancelled many flights, public transport is operating less frequently, etc. We are all asked to stay home as much as possible. Yet we allow animals to be transported everywhere and these animals do not go there by themselves but are driven or shipped by people to many destinations. Drivers, vessel crews, animal handlers, officials from the competent authorities and veterinarians, border crossing personnel, and loading/unloading personnel are all involved. There is a high risk for the drivers and animal handlers in the ports/borders and their families to get infected mainly because, unlike others who enter the EU, crew members of vessels are not required to be in quarantine upon their arrival. All of these people interact with others for every consignment and are at risk.”
Compassion In World Farming, PETA, The Humane League, L214, Eurogroup For Animals, Animals International, and Eyes on Animals were all among the signatories. A full list of all the organizations involved can be found here.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these groups, among others, are working to introduce farmed animal topics into emergency crisis discussions. One is the concern for the well-being of livestock animals who, due to slaughterhouse slowdowns and border closures, may be subjected to unacceptable conditions and wait times. The slowdown also increases the opportunity for exploitation among marginalized slaughterhouse and livestock delivery workers.
Secondly, the continued sale of live animals increases the risk of future zoonotic outbreaks, while the overuse of antibiotics by the agri- and aquaculture industries could result in future drug-resistant bacterial epidemics.
Pressure from the livestock industry to keep slaughterhouses open amid the COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in the confinement of livestock during travel for far longer times between food, rest, and water breaks. The pandemic further complicates live animal transport because farmed animals do not travel alone. As the letter points out, drivers, animal handlers, vessel crews, federal officials, veterinarians, and loading/unloading personnel are all in direct contact with the animals and, in turn, with each other. The stress of their workplace and prolonged exposure to potential COVID-19 carriers puts entire communities at a heightened risk of infection.
Since livestock truck drivers and handlers are considered essential personnel, they are exempted from some quarantine and shelter-in-place requirements. Regardless of these exemptions, animal transport and slaughterhouse workers must interact with each other before returning home to their families and communities. When drivers enter new municipalities, they are at risk of infecting others with the virus or contracting the virus themselves, which would contribute to the degradation of public health and overburdening of health systems.
Continuing to transport live animals across international borders and state lines will only expose communities to further risk of COVID-19 infection. Additionally, risks of infection continue when crews and drivers return from their long journeys.
In light of all the above considerations, the letter compels all EU member states to:
Suspend all live export by land, sea, and air to international destinations. Ships arriving in international ports may not be allowed to unload as countries close their borders, which would lead to widespread animal welfare problems. The delay will also make it increasingly difficult for importing countries to ensure producers are slaughtering animals according to the appropriate standards.
Suspend all transport of live farm animals on journeys over eight hours. Neither veterinarians nor police will have time during the COVID-19 crisis to enforce compliance and address rapidly-developing welfare problems.
Until live animal exports are suspended, the government must ensure rapid communication so livestock organizers can avoid long lines and understaffed slaughterhouses. Workers at these facilities, often vulnerable migrant populations, are particularly at-risk and deserve the same protections being offered to office workers around the world.
The potential for long-distance animal transport to spread diseases is worrying. Experts in the EU say stresses associated with handling and transport may cause latent infections to proceed to clinical disease: “Such animals are more likely to infect others during the journey or after arrival at their destination and in many cases (e.g. salmonellosis) this will also increase the risk to public health.”
Live animal sales
The COVID-19 outbreak, which disease specialists believe originated in China’s Hubei province, is likely connected to a large seafood market. This suggests the virus jumped from animals to humans. As a result, many advocates, including those involved with Direct Action Everywhere’s “Cancel Animal Ag” campaign, are asking state governments to put a halt to the sale of live animals during this critical time. Furthermore, they’re pushing for an investigation into whether current antibiotic practices in agri- and aquaculture are the best way to mitigate the risk of future drug-resistant bacterial outbreaks.
Aqua- and animal agriculture’s overuse of antibiotics poses risks to the global health system. Currently, 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used in animal agribusiness. The World Health Organization warns: “Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance,” says Dr. Kazuaki Miyagishima, Director of the Department of Food Safety and Zoonoses at WHO. “The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry.”
The widespread use of antibiotics also puts wildlife at risk. Antibiotics present environmental concerns, including residue accumulation, aquatic biodiversity toxicity, and the emergence of multi‐antibacterial resistant illness. Recent outbreaks of Heart and Skeletal Muscle Inflammation in salmon and Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome are a result of the insufficient bio-containment at industrial aquaculture operations nearby. As the discussion around antibiotics use accelerates, advocacy groups are calling for a halt in sales of live aquatic invertebrates and suspension of aquaculture-related sales.
We all have the opportunity to call on elected officials and media to address the public health crisis brought on by humans’ exploitation of animals during this deeply trying time. Together, we can transition the world to a plant-based food system—for animals, the environment, and everyone.
Correction: A previous version of this article did not properly attribute a letter directing EU member states to suspend live animal export to non-EU countries.
Trev ran in the 2019 federal election with the Animal Protection Party of Canada and is the founder of Cranbrook Friends of Animals Society, which aims to provide animal advocates effective tools for mainstream press coverage.