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Global Calls for Live Animal Sales in Food Markets to be Banned

Samuel Dupret reports on proposed new regulations for the sale of live animals in an effort to prevent future pandemics.

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Emerging zoonotic diseases (diseases caused by pathogens transmitted from animals to humans) like COVID-19 can have disastrous consequences on global human health. Many important health crises have been caused by zoonotic pathogens: think avian flu, SARS, Ebola, etc. Moreover, a large quantitative review has found that 75% of emerging pathogens are now zoonotic.

The live wild animal trade in traditional markets (e.g. wet markets) play an important role in the emergence of zoonotic diseases. This is because different species that might never otherwise meet are held closely together under stressful conditions that weaken their immune systems, and where fluids - waste, blood from slaughter and preparation, washing waters - are prone to be exchanged both between animals between animals and humans. Hence, pathogens are more likely to mutate in such ways that they might jump from animals to humans. Furthermore, wild animal populations are hard to inspect for, and protect from, diseases.

The current COVID-19 pandemic most likely originated in bats and jumped to humans in Wuhan City’s traditional market. Hence, on April 12th 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released guidelines for national governments to reduce the health risks related to sales of live wild mammalian animals in traditional food markets.

What are the Guidelines?

The main recommendation is to introduce emergency, temporary suspensions of live wild mammalian sales and closures of traditional food markets areas where these sales occur.

Making theses closures emergencies would hasten the otherwise slow process of changing food regulations. The closures should allow competent authorities to conduct risk assessments and introduce new regulations aimed at encouraging safer practices, such as making sure wild animals are not illegally introduced to wildlife farms.

Making these closures temporary would allow these markets to reopen if they meet the required standards and follow the new regulations. Traditional food markets have “an important economic, cultural, and social role and are a source of livelihoods for millions of people in both urban and rural areas”. Permitting them to reopen after the implementation of new regulations would allow them to fulfil this role while greatly reducing the risk of zoonotic pathogen transmission.

The other recommendations involve:

  • Improving hygiene and sanitation standards in traditional food markets

  • Increasing regulations and inspections in wild animal farms because of the high zoonotic risks involved

  • Training food and veterinary inspectors in relation to new regulations and making sure they enforce regulations free from conflicts of interest

  • Creating national committees to coordinate and strengthen disease surveillance in humans, domestic animals and wildlife

  • Food safety information campaigns.

The Possible Effects

Calls to regulate live wildlife trade aren’t new. In 2006, the WHO released guidelines for “healthy food markets” in response to the role played by traditional markets in the emergence of SARS and H5N1. In 2020, animal welfare and conservation groups, as well as Elizabeth Maruma Mrema (UN biodiversity chief), were already asking for bans on live wildlife markets.

Hopefully, this new call will lead to important efforts in preventing future pandemics. However, it must be noted that suspending and introducing new regulations to wildlife trade might be difficult. Firstly, neither the WHO nor the UNEP have the legal power to enforce their recommendations on states.

Secondly, if a country’s wildlife trade is particularly strong, it might lobby against such regulations. For example, Peter J. Li (China policy specialist for the Humane Society International) told Deutsche Welle that the ban on wildlife markets in China following the 2003 SARS outbreak “was lifted largely because wildlife business interests launched a strong opposition to sabotage that policy”.

Finally, as mentioned by Elizabeth Maruma Mrema and survey responses from live bird market stakeholders in Vietnam, temporary suspensions might lead to illegal trade which is even harder to regulate.

Animal welfare groups including PETA or Animal Equality welcome the proposed guidelines, but have also criticised them for not going far enough. Notably, the guidelines neglect sales of non-wild animals and non-mammalian animals such as birds and reptiles.

By focusing on wildlife trade, we might neglect the health risks caused by intensive animal farming. Researchers estimate that 50% of emerging zoonotic diseases since 1940 are related to agricultural factors. In a 2020 set of guidelines, UNEP and the International Livestock Research Institute recognise that agricultural intensification has an important impact on human, animal and environmental health.

Economists Espinosa et al. note that guidelines like these usually focus on regulating and monitoring the supply of animal protein. They suggest that curbing demand for animal protein would help reduce the risk of emerging zoonotic diseases. This could be achieved by promoting and developing alternatives - i.e. plant-based options, insects or cultured meat - and/or a tax on animal products to compensate for the societal burden caused by zoonotic diseases.

The impact of emerging zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 have important adverse consequence on our health and on the economy which warrant acting on their causes. However, these guidelines do not guarantee that states will follow them. Our focus should now turn to which regulations states do implement and what these will achieve for the health of humans, animals and the environment.


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