COVID-19 could be ‘straw that breaks meat industry’s back’ says new report

The report concludes that intensive animal production is at serious risk of creating and spreading a future pandemic. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s largest meat, fish and dairy companies have been graded as a ‘high’ pandemic risk and criticised for their inability to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases in a new report released on Wednesday (3 June).

The report, which was produced by FAIRR, a global investor network supported by institutional investors, aims to offer insights into how the current crisis has impacted the animal protein industry, the vulnerability of the industry to future shocks and the role that the sector plays in creating future pandemic risk.

It concludes that the sector is struggling post-COVID-19, and that the pandemic could be the “straw that breaks the meat industry’s back,” concluding that this “demonstrates that intensive animal production is at serious risk of creating and spreading a future pandemic.”

Coronavirus outbreak exposing vulnerabilities in the EU meat sector

After multiple outbreaks of coronavirus brought meat-processing plants to a standstill across the US, a similar trend has started to be seen across the EU, with potentially damaging consequences for the sector.

The ‘Pandemic Ranking’ uses data collected by the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, designed to be a tool to evaluate resilience in the global food chain and to mitigate future disasters, as well as to help investors to base decisions.

This ranking is based on a set of seven criteria deemed as vital in the prevention of future zoonotic pandemics. These include worker and food safety, deforestation and biodiversity management, animal welfare and antibiotic stewardship.

The research, entitled ‘An Industry Infected’, forewarns investors that the meat industry will be subject to increased scrutiny and regulation likely to include new bio-security protocols to mitigate disease outbreaks. 

“A monumental and coordinated shift in biosecurity training, safety and surveillance is needed, especially in emerging markets,” it says, adding that, based on currently available knowledge, the authors “expect to see material regulatory and market changes occur.”

“From a regulatory perspective, we are seeing an unusual policy window opening in response to the pandemic, as regulators consider how best to prevent and/or mitigate the next crisis,” it reads, adding that regulatory conversations are already taking place across Europe and the US.

This apparent fragility of the sector has now led the investment bank and financial services company Goldman Sachs to list livestock as one of the two most precarious commodities for investors next year, alongside oil.

The meat sector system has been increasingly under fire in the past weeks, after a series of outbreaks of coronavirus in meat plants across the US and, to a lesser extent, the EU has brought the industry to a standstill in some places.

German slaughterhouses become a source of COVID-19 infections

Many employees in slaughterhouses are ill with COVID-19 because they work and live closely together. The abuses in the industry have been known for years, but little has changed. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Jeremy Coller, the founder of FAIRR and chief information officer of Coller Capital, said factory farming is “both vulnerable to pandemics, and guilty of creating them. It’s a self-sabotaging cycle that destroys value and risks lives. “

To avoid causing the next pandemic, the meat industry must tackle lax safety standards for food and workers alike, closely confined animals and overused antibiotics. This will disrupt a supply chain already cracking from fundamental land, water and emissions constraints.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Dutch MEP Anja Hazekamp  who told a recent event on pandemics and intensive animal farming that “this pandemic, and previous epidemics too, have shown that the main problem here is our consumption of animals,” adding that we are now at a “turning point.”

At the same event, EU Food Safety and Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said that “more needs to be done so our systems become more resilient and our citizens protected,” adding that highly intensive farming systems have created issues that deeply concern her.

Questioned about the issues arising in the meat sector, Paolo Patruno, deputy secretary-general of CLITRAVI, the liaison centre for the meat processing industry in the EU, recently told EURACTIV that the “overwhelming majority of EU meat processing plants are securing foods to the European citizens in the full respect of animal health and welfare and by implementing high standards to protect human health.”

Farm to Fork strategy softens stance on meat but backs alternative proteins

The EU’s pivotal Farm to Fork (F2F) strategy, presented on Wednesday (20 May), softened its stance on meat compared to the previous draft versions but offered staunch support for alternative proteins, which campaigners said was the first step in the right direction.

In terms of forecasts for the future of the industry, FAIRR’s research highlights opportunities in the alternative protein sector, following a steep sales growth of plant-based proteins. 

“As COVID-19 continues to disrupt the animal protein supply chain, many plant-based alternatives have been able to compete directly on price for the first time,” the report stated, noting that sales of plant-based meat alternatives have been up 200% year on year, while shares of Beyond Meat have risen more than 80% this year.

It added that this trend is set to continue, with retailers and manufacturers predicted to increase their use of plant-based proteins to reduce supply chain risks. 

This is also highlighted in the EU’s flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, which offered staunch support for alternative proteins.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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