Animal Aid

ANIMAL DISEASES And modern farming practices

When animals are exploited and stressed through modern farming systems, many will get sick and infirm. The consumer also often has to pay a price from eating unhealthy animals. As part of our Veggie Month campaign, we provide key background to animal diseases and modern farming practices.

Concern, often verging on panic, about the safety of food has been the stuff of headlines for the last decade. Whether the issue is BSE, salmonella, campylobacter, E. coli 0157, scrapie, swine fever, bovine TB, or now >foot and mouth disease, the common factor to all these scares is that they relate to the flesh and secretions of animals.

The farming industry - backed by politicians - often seeks to scapegoat an innocent animal species for these outbreaks. For instance, badgers are blamed for bovine TB, wild boar for the swine fever outbreak amongst shed-reared pigs, and wild birds for giving factory reared chickens Newcastle's disease. But the real lesson is clear for anyone who wishes to learn it: the more we stress and exploit animals under modern systems of intensive rearing, the weaker the animals will become and the more they will fall prey to disease.

When people then eat any part of the diseased and enfeebled bodies of these animals, they run an increasingly high risk of themselves becoming ill. Record levels of food poisoning demonstrate this point. As does the BSE catastrophe, which translates into vCJD when people are afflicted.

BSE and other cattle diseases

The specific causative agent of BSE is still debated. (Infected sheep meat? The use of toxic pesticides to attack endemic levels of cattle infestation? The injection of a contaminated hormone during high tech breeding programmes?) All the main theories, however, relate to unnatural practises aimed at extracting maximum profit from animals who were already at physiological breaking point because of the volume of milk and calf 'output' demanded of them. See Close Up on BSE.

E.coli 0157 is another disease bug that thrives in stressed cattle. It is thought to spread especially easily amongst animals who are forced to endure the extra long journeys to slaughterhouses, in crowded trucks, which are now increasingly common. In March 1998, an E.coli 0157 outbreak left 21 people dead in Lanarkshire; all had eaten meat products from infected animals.

Bovine TB in another serious problem amongst modern intensively reared cattle - yet thousands of badgers are being pointlessly killed under government orders to placate a farming industry that refuses to clean up its act.

See Look after your health for the links between dairy products and Crohn's Disease, a debilitating condition of the digestive tract.

Sheep, BSE and other diseases

There are now fears that BSE has spread to sheep, from whom many believe it originated in the form of the disease scrapie. While BSE in cattle is believed (probably incorrectly) to be confined to the brain and central nervous system, lab experiments have produced infection in sheep's lymph nodes and spleen, the latter organ being connected to the animal's entire blood supply. In other words, any infection would migrate throughout the whole body.

Surely, sheep aren't victims of intensification in the same way as are pigs, chickens and cattle? In fact, the popular image of sheep in their contented element couldn't be more false. Sheep have never relished standing in the driving rain and snow - or in summer drought conditions - without shelter. And they have always paid the price for having to do so by way of early mortality. miscarriage and chronic disease. With a larger than ever national flock, fewer shepherds to attend to the animals' basic needs, and new feeding and breeding regimes aimed at maximising lamb numbers and 'carcase quality', the rate of disease and early mortality are correspondingly high. Four million lambs die every year within a few days of birth, according to the Ministry of Agriculture - the principle causes being exposure, malnutrition and disease. That's one in five of the total. The trade's own figures also show that about one million of roughly 22 or 23 million adult animals perish before they can be slaughtered.

'The health of the British sheep flock is declining', declared a leading British vet. (Dr Gerald Coles, senior research fellow Bristol University, The Sheep Farmer, March 1995). 'This is true,' he noted, 'for diseases cause by viruses, bacteria and ecto(skin) parasites.'

Once again, the burden on these animals translates into potential health problems for the human consumers of their flesh. One sheep disease that has so far attracted little commentary is maedi visna. The condition can fairly be described as a form of sheep AIDS, both in terms of its genetic composition and the disease it causes - leading to wasting, neurological damage, secondary infections, pneumonia and so on.

See also the suffering of farmed sheep and cattle.

Poulty diseases

The same formula as applies to the sheep and cattle trades holds true for the chicken industry. Every year the trade journal, Poultry World, publishes its 'Disease Directory', listing around 100 ailments that 'commonly' afflict commercial poultry - notably cage-reared laying hens, turkeys and broiler chickens, who are reared scores of thousand to each stinking, windowless shed.

Salmonella, unsurprisingly, is endemic and so is campylobacter, a bacterial infection that causes serious complications in one in ten human sufferers. Symptoms include septicaemia and even paralysis. Nine out of 10 chickens on sale in UK shops are now reported to be contaminated with this bug. (Daily Mail, 4.11.2000), while a survey by the consumer magazine Which found that one third of all chickens on sale in supermarkets were 'unfit for human consumption'. (The Guardian, 3.10.96)

Pig diseases

Farmed pigs, most of whom are raised in stone and metal pens inside crowded sheds, are also prone to numerous ailments, whose impact on human consumers is little understood. These include respiratory diseases (e.g. enzootic pneumonia and rhinitis); diarrhoea, or scours (typically caused by E.coli or swine dysentery); and reproductive viruses such as parvo-virus, enterovirus and SMEDI. Then there is meningitis, swine fever and mange.

The trade tries to keep these diseases at bay through the application of a wide range of invariably toxic pharmaceutical products. But it's a losing battle within a regime whose prime objective is to produce more piglets per sow and get the fattened animals off to slaughter as rapidly as possible. Some pigs are even showing signs of anorexia (New Scientist 11.9.99) The affected animals are usually young females, who fail to eat, become hyperactive and infertile.

See also the suffering of farmed pigs.

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