Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Food & Hunger

5 things to know about animals and pathogens

Highly contagious diseases that affect humans cause international uproar—as they should.

Highly contagious diseases that affect animals cause international...concern? Yawns?

Why is that? Diseases like bird flu can impact many areas of human life, including food systems, the broader economy and even health.

Food-borne illnesses, on the other hand, are an even bigger threat to human well being and can flourish if industry regulations are lax.  

Millions of people die each year from foodborne illness or contaminated water, and hundreds of millions of more people get sick.

Here are 5 things to keep in mind about animal disease, food safety and human welfare:

1) Infectious diseases can cripple food systems

When bird flu strikes, whole farms of chickens are annihilated. Earlier in the year, an outbreak swept through the US, killing tens of millions of chickens.

This obviously had a big impact on the economy as farms and the chains of business linked to them—transportation, preparation, distribution, etc.—ground to a halt.

If bird flu isn’t rapidly contained, it can spread like wildfire through a nation’s chicken supply. In developing countries with fragile food systems, this can be devastating.

A strain of bird flu is currently sweeping through Africa. It has the potential to wipe out much of the continent’s chicken farms, exacerbating the precarious food systems of many countries.

2) Animals are the breeding ground for human flus

While bird flus can’t directly infect humans, it can take a roundabout route through pigs.  

Bird flu can infect pigs and then mutate into a form that can infect humans, since pigs have similar receptors on their respiratory cells. And pigs are often raised near chickens. (Also, most human flus begin in animals.)

3) Consumers can only do so much

You cook away the pink in your chicken, right? You rinse your vegetables, clean your plates and counter, don’t drink straight from contaminated streams, right?

If so, congratulations! You will never get sick from the food you eat—wait a minute. Nevermind. I take that back.

Consumers can, in fact, do a great deal to avoid foodborne illnesses, but much of the burden lies with food manufacturers and preparers. If they fall short on their responsibilities, then foods can quickly become contaminated with pathogens.

Bacteria, viruses and parasites are hard to detect and seize any opportunity to infiltrate food.

For produce, this mostly happens when crops are irrigated or washed with water contaminated with animal or human waste or shoddy storage methods are followed.

What consumers CAN do, however, is buy food only from producers who responsibly prevent contamination and rally legislators to enact tougher policies. 

4) Weak regulation leads to more foodborne illness

Food can be poisoned at any step of its journey to your plate: handling, preparation, storage and transportation. Many people increasingly depend on food that is cut, cooked and packaged by third-parties.

If regulations and enforcement are strong, then food poisoning plummets. But they are rarely strong enough.

That cantaloupe your friend sliced open on his back-porch can carry Listeria if it wasn’t properly rinsed by producers.  

That chicken you bought? If any other chicken slaughtered at the same factory had salmonella, it probably does too.

In countries with spotty oversight, the likelihood of foodborne illness is more common because proper precautions cost money and take time.

5) Global food safety is an achievable goal

Sensible steps can be taken to avoid cases of animal disease and foodborne illness. Most of the food consumed in the world is devoid of pathogens or can be if consumers follow simple protocols.

But the rush to scale up food production facilities, especially in developing countries, can cause expedient departures from sanitation techniques such as proper rinsing, food separation and refrigeration.

If countries insist on aggressive enforcement of food safety and invest in ways to combat diseases such as bird flu, people will not have to fear what they eat.  

In the event that epidemics arise and cause food insecurity in the future, TAKE ACTION NOW by signing a petition calling on the US Congress to support the Global Food Security Act.