What's the beef with meat boom in Asia?

UN agency warns that diseases may spread as demand drives up unsafe meat production

ROME • A boom in demand for meat in Asia threatens to fuel the spread of disease from animals to humans, as boosting production often takes priority over food safety, a United Nations agency has warned.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases like the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) virus and bird flu will become more common unless governments step up regulation, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.

"We will see more diseases and we will see more epidemics, starting tomorrow," said FAO chief veterinary officer Juan Lubroth.

In East Asia, economic growth and higher incomes have boosted appetites for meat. Consumption of meat products has ballooned fivefold over the last half-century, to 50kg a person in 2015, the FAO said.

Livestock markets and farms - particularly of pigs and chickens - have sprawled, which is making it hard for the authorities to keep up with vaccinations and inspections, Dr Lubroth said.

Global population growth, which is set to further increase demand, and selective breeding practices have heightened the problem.

This is creating the conditions for a "disease perfect storm".

"All these (livestock) animals are genetically very similar... so if one is susceptible (to a disease), all of them are," Dr Lubroth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He urged governments to put food safety higher up the agenda and invest in prevention to avoid more epidemics.

Three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases in recent years have spread to humans from animals or animal products, according to the World Health Organisation.

In an increasingly interconnected world, it is easier for diseases to cross borders, Dr Lubroth said.

Sars, which emerged in southern China in late 2002, spread rapidly to other cities and countries in 2003. More than 8,000 people were infected and 775 died.

Since last year, authorities in Asia and Europe have been dealing with different strains of bird flu, leading to the mass culling of poultry as well as human deaths in China.

Authorities in China's third largest city have warned that about 30 per cent of its live poultry markets are contaminated with the H7N9 avian flu virus.

China Daily reported yesterday that the disease control authority in Guangzhou had urged residents to avoid contact with live poultry after tests in the past week.

The major port and transportation hub said last month that it would suspend the trade of live and slaughtered poultry for three-day periods until next month, to stop the spread of avian flu to humans.

The latest warning will reinforce concerns about the spread of the virus, as the death toll in China this winter hit 30 last week and neighbouring South Korea and Japan battle major similar outbreaks.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'What's the beef with meat boom in Asia?'. Print Edition | Subscribe