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Report warns of health threat

News Section Icon Published 29/05/2013

The intensification of modern farming is an increasing hazard for human health. That is the stark message of our new report released today.

The report Zoonotic Diseases, Human Health and Farm Animal Welfare ( 11MB), which was produced with funding from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and the Tubney Charitable Trust, warns that the increasing tendency to rear animals in confined spaces, using breeds and intensive management methods to increase production to satisfy the world's growing appetite for meat is putting human health at risk.

The bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella and E. coli all cause serious disease in people, and can even be fatal. Intensive farming practices are increasing the risk of these bacteria in our food, as stressed animals become more susceptible to infection.


Our report highlights that levels of Enterohaemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) in the UK and the US are very different. This is likely due to the intensive farming of beef cattle in the US. Rather than rearing cattle on pasture, which is common in the UK, cattle are fed grain in feedlots increasing E. coli in the gut of cattle, which can contaminate meat at slaughter.

Studies of beef cattle in the US indicate EHEC may be present in the intestines or on the hides of 20-28% of cattle at slaughter and in 43% of meat samples after processing.

Levels in the UK are lower, with only 4.7% of cattle intestine samples testing positive. The US has around 73,000 human cases a year, compared to fewer than 1,000 in England and Wales, a significant difference even when the population discrepancy is taken into account.

Other intensive methods used in some parts of the world also cause health risks.

For example, the practice of "thinning" meat chickens - taking around 30% of birds from an intensive poultry shed one week before the rest of the flock in order to maximise the total amount of meat that can be produced in the given space - raises the stress levels of the remaining birds and increases their susceptibility to Campylobacter, the single biggest identified cause of food poisoning in much of the developed world.

The use of fast growing breeds, which are large enough for slaughter at just five to six weeks old, may also increase the risk of Campylobacter, and evidence shows that the infection is now going into the birds' organs, making products like chicken liver a food poisoning risk.

The report urges Governments, Inter-Governmental Organisations (IGOs) and the food production industry to urgently work together to implement the following recommendations:

  • Ensure health - by developing farming policies for humane sustainable food supplies that ensure the health of animals and people. This includes using animal breeds, diets and management conditions that minimise stress and optimise animal welfare and immunity.
  • Surveillance and vaccination - helping minimise the spread of disease.
  • Limit transport - ensuring animals are slaughtered humanely on or near to the farm where they were raised.
  • Invest in research and knowledge transfer - helping support farmers to develop and implement higher welfare livestock systems.
  • Reduce non-therapeutic antibiotic use - limiting the risk of antibiotic resistance.
  • Encourage consumers to eat less and higher welfare meat - reducing the risk of exposure to food infected with Salmonella, Campylobacter or E. Coli.

Download the report


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