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Time For Slaughterhouses To Close

The Government announced this week that slaughterhouses will remain open during the current 4-week Covid-90 lockdown because they are an ‘essential service’. To state that slaughtering animals is ‘essential’ to our survival is frankly ridiculous, and given that the World Food Organisation (FAO) has warned that the number of animal diseases transmissible to humans is increasing at an unprecedented rate, this is an excellent time for a national debate on the subject.

As many of us now know, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease, which means it can be transmitted to humans by nonhuman vertebrates. Covid-19 is in the family of coronaviruses, which is a large and diverse family. However it is a new mutation, and it spread from animals. The coronavirus that produces the disease jumped from a wild animal (bat or pangolin) to a human in a Chinese slaughterhouse probably when it was being killed or prepared for consumption.

It is of utmost importance that we understand that the threat that the consumption of animals poses to us. Every pandemic in the last one hundred years has had an animal origin, from the Spanish flu in 1917-1918, that is thought to have originated in a Kansas hog farm, to Ebola, SARS, MERS, Mexican flu, Avian Flu and HIV. In fact, according to the World Agriculture Changing Disease Landscapes report published in 2013, a full seventy percent of the new diseases that have emerged in humans over recent decades are of animal origin, and were caused by the consumption of animals.

Collectively, these diseases have killed hundreds of millions of people. The Spanish flu alone killed an estimated 50 million, and infected half a billion. Of the most recent pandemics, SARS (from Civet Cats) and MERS (from camels), were better contained then Covid-19, which has spread globally with hitherto unforeseen speed. It is an omen of things to come unless we address the root of the problem.

The root of the problem is eating animals. It should be noted here that much of the pork we eat here in New Zealand comes from China, a country that not only has appalling animal welfare, but is also currently dealing with African Swine Fever that is rampant in their pig production. Last year, in China, an estimated 150 million pigs were ‘destroyed’ to stop the spread of the swine fever among pig herds. The animals were buried alive, or burned alive, in their hundreds of millions, even though swine fever is not transmissible to humans because the virus shape is unable to fix itself to human cells.

The domestication of animals for human use has directly led to the emergence of zoonotic diseases, according to a systematic review of academic literature published in the journal One Health in 2016. This review also suggested that farmers and slaughterhouse workers are more at risk than the general population of succumbing to zoonotic diseases. In this same article it is stated that “little is known about the intensity and type of contact patterns leading to transmission, and thus the exact transmission pathways of micro-organisms from livestock to humans usually remains unclear”.

We like to think that New Zealand slaughterhouses are relatively ‘clean’ and orderly places, where animals are killed ‘humanely’. But in reality they are places of great stress and anxiety for staff as well as animals, and they are far from clean. Blood is spilled constantly, pooling on the floors, and splashing onto workers’ clothes. Offal is stored in bins and smeared on surfaces and workers’ aprons. The stench from these places is overwhelming. We wonder how long before a New Zealand slaughterhouse worker contracts Covid-19, as happened this week in the United States, when a meat plant worker tested positive.

Apart from any other consideration around the ethics of producing meat, it is by now well established that its consumption is directly correlated to heart disease, diabetes, artheroslerosis, obesity, and some forms of cancer, especially colon cancer. There is also the problem of antibiotics given to farmed animals to consider. Their use on a large scale the world over has caused a marked rise in antibiotic resistant superbugs, projected to result in 10 million deaths a year by 2050.

A world plagued by zoonotic disease is a hideous thought. Humans have so radically altered the ecosystems of the planet due to globalization and economic development, and by the growing consumption of animals and their products, that we have created the perfect storm for the emergence of new pathogens. It is a matter of urgency that we need to call it to a halt.

We do not need to breed and slaughter animals for our food. There are so many delicious protein substitutes – meat, fish, egg and dairy – now available. Made from plants, there is no risk of zoonotic outbreaks and antimicrobial resistance. It is time to stop breeding animals to eat them, and it is also time to close down slaughterhouse doors not only temporarily, but for good.

If we do, then the end of animal suffering will result in a significant reduction in human suffering too.

Sandra Kyle is a part-time music teacher and full-time animal rights advocate.

Dr Lynley Tulloch is an animal rights advocate and lectures in education.

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