The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into perspective discrepancies between countries in terms of animal welfare and biosecurity law. At a time where the consequences of lax legal frameworks are all too apparent, Samuel March discusses past, present and future biosecurity threats across China, the US and the UK, and the role of animal law in protecting against them.
China: the genesis of the current pandemic
At some point in late 2019, supposedly at a meat and seafood market in Wuhan, China, it is expected that there occurred a meeting of two animals. That fateful encounter, the theory has it, was the start of the global pandemic now known as Covid-19.
The popularity of wildlife trade in China has fuelled the success of these “wet markets”, where a menagerie of hapless animals that would never naturally cross paths find themselves confined to close quarters together. At a single store on the east side of this Wuhan market, the menu suggests around 100 varieties of live animals and poultry were available, from foxes to wolf cubs and masked palm civet cats.
Although the precise species of our two protagonists continues to elicit debate amongst experts, sources suggest that the first was probably a Rhinolophus affinis bat and the second possibly a pangolin, a protected species of scaly ant-eater, often smuggled illegally into China for use in food and traditional medicine.
Exactly how the meeting transpired we may never know, but looking at the footage (see below) from wet markets, it is not difficult to imagine. Animals are clearly seen stacked one above the other; some alive awaiting slaughter, some already dead, and some somewhere in between: sick and dying. Somewhere amidst this amalgam of animals, severed parts and dripping excretions, a new strain of coronavirus jumped from bat to the pangolin, mutating as it passed, and from there to humans, where it has continued to spread as sars-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease Covid-19).
The outbreak has led to much criticism of China’s wildlife protection law. Over the last 60 years, China’s legislative framework for wildlife protection has developed through a patchwork of legal documents at the local, national and international levels. Feng et al. provide a useful overview of the legislative landscape.
At the centre of recent controversies is China’s Wildlife Protection Law (WPL). Enacted in 1989, the WPL affords some protection to wildlife. Its scope, however, is narrow. As per Article 2, the only wildlife protected under it are terrestrial and aquatic species that are rare or endangered, and terrestrial species that are of important ecological, scientific, and social values. Other species can be hunted, killed, traded and eaten. The system also permits the captive breeding of wildlife, and it wasn’t until the 2016 revisions that such wildlife was afforded basic welfare standards or protection from abuse.
Despite purporting to protect wildlife, the act explicitly defines wild animals as a resource to be used for the benefit of humans. As such, it continues to allow a wide variety of animals to be sold in wet markets both for food and traditional medicine, and has not sufficiently raised welfare or hygiene standards. The result, according to China Policy Specialist for the Humane Society International, Dr Peter J. Li, is that these markets have become a “hotbed for diseases.” Those who followed the outbreak of acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in the early 2000s will recall that that emerged in similar conditions, again spreading from a bat to humans, although that time supposedly with a civet cat acting as the intermediary species. Since the SARS outbreak, Chinese virologists have been warning of the potential biosecurity risk posed by these markets, and calling for legal reform. Li suggests Covid-19 is “the huge price [China is] paying for snubbing the country’s top scientists.”
It seems the country may now be listening. On the 26th January, wildlife trade activities were temporarily banned after a notice by China’s agriculture and rural affairs ministry, the state administration for market regulation, and the state forestry. The country is taking steps to permanently ban the trade and consumption of live wild animals for food. In February, President Xi Jinping said China needed to accelerate the introduction of a biosecurity law to safeguard national security. Zhao Hongsheng, a lawyer with the Shanghai Zhao Hongsheng Law Firm, attributes the move to the Covid-19 epidemic, which “has caused catastrophic results and has become a trigger to speed up the process of biosecurity law legislation”.
Despite these moves, as recently as the 4th March, China’s National Health Commission recommended using Tan Re Qing (made from bear bile) to treat severe and critical Covid-19 cases. It is a move that has been criticised as confusing and contradictory. Calling for an end to China’s wildlife trade, Aron White of the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) told National Geographic that “all wildlife farms pose health risks, regardless of whether the animals are being bred for meat or traditional medicine […] in both cases, hundreds of wild animals often live crammed together, and people often interact with carcasses.”
In light of SARS and Covid-19, it seems fair to say that, from a biosecurity standpoint, China’s animal law landscape leaves something to be desired. However, despite Donald Trump’s attempts to portray this pandemic as a “foreign virus”, it is important not to allow the discourse around biosecurity threats and zoonoses to revolve solely around the exotic menus and alien practices of Chinese wet markets or bear farms. Whilst the footage from China may seem jarring, cruel, unnatural and unhygienic, there is nothing unique to China about cramming thousands of animals together in intensive, disease-prone conditions and then slaughtering them en masse.
The USA: a dual threat
If anything, the industrialisation of animal consumption since the 1930s has been driven by American innovations and investment. World Animal Protection’s (WAP) Animal Protection Index (API) ranks 50 countries from A (being the highest score) to G (being the weakest score) according to their animal welfare policy and legislation. The USA scored a low D (scarcely higher than China’s E). The US’ poor performance prompted its inclusion on WAP’s list of “some of the countries with the lowest ranking affected by zoonotic diseases”.
The US’ legislative framework for the protection of farm animals scored an even lower E. At the federal level, the US Animal Welfare Act explicitly excludes farm animals during the rearing phase, and at state level 34 of the 50 states also exclude livestock from anti-cruelty provisions. Only 11 states have introduced measures to prevent the use of the “most egregious confinement systems”. Animal welfare in the US is largely defined by industry-set guidelines, provided through voluntary third-party audits, rather than legislation.
The intensity of farming in the US means this lack of standards plays out on an almost unfathomable scale. Whilst intensive farming is not a uniquely American phenomenon, it is particularly prevalent there. Data from the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture suggests that 70.4 percent of cows, 98.3 percent of pigs, 99.8 percent of turkeys, 98.2 percent of chickens raised for eggs, and over 99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat in the US are raised in factory farms.
The country’s lax legislative landscape allows nine billion poultry a year to be slaughtered without the benefit of any federal legislative protection as they are excluded from the provisions of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. With the exception of a number of outlying states, such as California, the World Animal Protection report reveals a legal landscape which permits some of the world’s most industrialised and intensive farming often in loosely or inconsistently regulated conditions.
This intensification comes at a cost: poor living conditions, ventilation control and stress weaken the animals' immunity, and crowding raises the risk of infection and disease. Intensive farms can facilitate the emergence of new zoonoses, serving as a bridge between wild animal reservoirs and human populations, or acting as the “locus pathogen evolution itself”. In ‘Big Farms Make Big Flu”, Rob Wallace traced many of the most dangerous new diseases in humans back to industrial food systems, among them Campylobacter, Nipah virus, Q fever, hepatitis E, and a variety of novel influenza variants.
The development of these new diseases are no “foreign” problem, and intensive farms in North America and Europe can be breeding grounds for new subtypes of these viruses. Avian influenza subtypes are designated as either low or highly pathogenic (“LPAI” or “HPAI”). As Rebel et al. explain, the designation refers to their levels of lethality in chickens; an LPAI virus might produce respiratory signs such as ocular and nasal discharge and swollen infra orbital sinuses, whereas an HPAI could result in 100% mortality within a susceptible poultry species. A “key event in the genesis” of all HPAI viruses is the “conversion” (mutation) of a LPAI into an HPAI virus. Dhingra et al. found that a majority of conversions occurred in commercial poultry production systems, and mostly in high-income countries. Such conversions were particularly common in Europe and the US. Nelson et al. also found that it was exports from Europe and North America that were likely acting as the sources of swine flu in Asian countries. It is clear, therefore, that western countries share in the burden of legislating to prevent the next pandemic; but even for these highly developed countries, achieving a “zero” risk of zoonoses evolution or transmission is “virtually impossible” in farmed livestock populations.
The intensification of farming in countries like the US is a dual threat. Not only does it allow for the emergence of new pathogens, but it creates more resistant microorganisms. Because of the lax standards and immunosuppressing conditions in which animals are reared, industrial farms rely on large quantities of antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals to prevent the emergence and spread of pathogens. Overuse of these drugs allows diseases to evolve and develop resistant strains. The threat is most pressing in the case of antibiotics. As resistance to antibiotics escalates, the drugs lose their effectiveness not just in veterinary medicine, but in human medicine too. Experts have warned that we are entering a “post antibiotic era,” where currently life-saving antibiotics are ceasing to be effective. Already, more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur in the US each year, and more than 35,000 people die as a result. The rise of these “superbugs” have been labelled “a pandemic in the making”.
In factory farming operations, antibiotics are administered for three main purposes: (1) disease treatment, (2) disease prevention, and (3) growth promotion. Back in 2001, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that 87% of all antibiotic use was for animals, and that 11.2 million kg of the antibiotics used annually in the United States were administered to livestock simply as growth promoters (this was a far greater volume than the 1.4 million kg used for human medical use).
This prompted calls to phase out non-therapeutic use in the US. These were ultimately heeded, and in 2017 the US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) introduced new rules. Under Guidance for Industry (GFI) #213, antibiotics that are important for human medicine can be purchased only by prescription, and can no longer be used for growth promotion or feed efficiency. However, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a regulatory loophole means that the practice still endures. Whilst the move resulted in more than 80 products marketed as growth promoters being taken off sale, 31 remained on the market, just without the words "growth promotion" on their labels. With no clear line between growth promotion and disease prevention, and no restrictions on how long they can be administered for, the regulations are easily circumvented.
In 2018 alone, 6 million kilograms of medically important antibiotics were sold to farmers in the US. This is in part because the FDA still permits farmers to use them for preventing diseases caused by poor hygiene, welfare and biosecurity. Allowing preventative use may actually disincentive producers from addressing these conditions. As such, campaigners have called for the FDA to go further and restrict the use of medically important antibiotics strictly to disease treatment or controlling a verified disease outbreak. This would force producers to find more holistic methods to reduce disease risk and improve immunity. This could be achieved through improved living conditions and nutrition, reduced crowding, better ventilation and increased biosecurity regulations and measures.
The UK and Europe: an uncertain future
Although no country obtained an ‘A’ grade in WAP’s API, European countries fared somewhat better than their American and Asian counterparts. Sweden, United Kingdom and Austria secured the highest scores, and World Animal Protection urged other countries to follow their lead.
In stark contrast to the wide range of wildlife animals that can be farmed under China’s WPL, European Union Law (Council Directive 98/58/EC Annex Paragraph 22) states that “no animal shall be kept for farming purposes unless it can reasonably be expected on the basis of its genotype of phenotype that it can be kept without detrimental effect on its health and welfare.” This limits farming largely to the most commonly domesticated species.
Where these species are concerned, all EU Member States are signatories to the 1976 Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes. This means that, unlike in the US, there are minimum, consistent standards that ensure basic welfare for farmed animals, especially those in intensive farming systems. Also at the EU level, Council Directive 98/58/EC Article 3 seeks to protect domesticated animals from “any unnecessary pain or suffering.” In contrast to the US’s system of voluntary, industry-driven guidelines, the EU has laid down species-specific directives setting out welfare requirements for pigs, calves, broiler chickens and laying hens.
At the national level, the UK’s Animal Welfare Act 2006 applies to all domesticated animals and includes the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 that set minimum standards specifically for the welfare of animals “bred or kept for the production of food, wool, or skin or other farming purposes.”
A range of UK laws and regulations impose biosecurity standards relating to welfare, prescribing, feeding bans, disposal of carcases, notifiable diseases and disease surveillance, the supply of eggs and food safety, disposal of waste and environmental protection. These measures are strict in comparison with the regulatory landscape of some of the other countries discussed. For instance, the Animal By‐Products Regulations, in place since 2001, go as far as to prevent even backyard farmers from feeding kitchen waste to animals, unless from a strictly vegan kitchen, to prevent the emergence or spread of zoonoses.
In terms of antibiotic resistance, the UK banned the use of penicillin and tetracycline as growth promoters in the early 1970s, paving the way for Norway, Finland, Poland, Denmark and Switzerland, who followed suit shortly thereafter. The EU then enacted a comprehensive ban on all growth-promoter antibiotics in 2016.
Although the UK may hold itself out as a world leader in animal law, it will face a crossroads in the coming years. As it decouples from the European Union, it will be forced to make decisions about its future relationships with its main trading partners, both in Europe and further afield. Negotiating comprehensive trade deals generally involves going beyond simply removing tariffs and opening markets as prospective partners focus on aligning regulations and standards. There has been growing concern in the UK for some time that the government may be willing to compromise on food hygiene and animal welfare standards in order to make it easier to strike a wide-ranging post-Brexit trade deal with the US. The EU, on the other hand, is expected to maintain a hard line, blocking any deal unless UK promises to uphold the EU's strict rules relating to food and welfare. As the UK is pulled in two directions, its choice of trading partners is likely to define its food, welfare and agricultural standards for years to come.
In the shadow of this zoonotic pandemic, one can only hope that the UK, and indeed all countries, take notice of World Animal Protection’s warnings: this is a global threat to animal and people’s health, and it will continue unless all countries implement effective legislation and preventative measures. Countries should look to improve animal welfare and prevent disease, not by pumping animals full of medically important drugs, but by moving away from cruel and dangerous practices.
BPTC student, The University of Law
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