Coronavirus outbreak raises questions about food safety

Disease can jump from animals to humans, but safe farming and food-handling practices cut the risk.

By Heifer International

January 24, 2020

A virus that causes MERS, a coronavirus similar to the current outbreak
A coronavirus similar to the one responsible for the current outbreak. Photo courtesy of the CDC

In This Article

  • The current coronavirus outbreak was traced to a live-animal food market in Wuhan, China.
  • Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they spread from animals to people. People who consume infected animal products can become ill.
  • Bush meat is a dangerous but necessary source of protein for many people around the world.
  • Small-scale livestock farming can help break the reliance on bush meat.

Human history is pocked and bloodied by zoonotic diseases (those that spread between animals and humans). Often, the diseases leap to humans who consume milk or meat from infected animals, especially “bush meat” harvested in the wild. Epidemiologists believe they have traced the Wuhan virus currently spreading in Asia and the U.S. to snake meat sold in a live-animal food market in Wuhan, China.

Heifer International has lots of experience working with communities to set up safe, sanitary and sustainable livestock projects to provide nutrition and income. This story from Cameroon showcases some of the reasons people harvest bush meat and also some ways to curtail the sometimes dangerous practice.

A woman in southern Cameroon walks to check a small-game trap deep in the forest. From dawn to dark each day she’s busy taking care of her children and tending a vegetable plot, hauling water and gathering firewood, so she checks the trap just once every three or four days. She drags a wild rodent from the trap with her bare hands, carries it home and butchers it. She’s good with a knife, but it’s not unlikely that she has a couple nicks on her hands or arms.

The woman explains the process: She cuts open the carcass and first pulls out the maggots and entrails. She then places the meat in a pan in water and cooks it for the next family meal. “As she was telling me this, I found it really disturbing, given the work we do,” said Dr. Karen Saylors, a medical anthropologist working to prevent pandemics. Saylors and her team monitor hunter-gatherer communities throughout Cameroon who rely on bush meat for sustenance in an effort to prevent the next deadly virus from jumping from infected wild game to humans. “The meat she was preparing for a meal was already rotten,” Saylors said. “I asked her about washing the blood from her hands with soap before cooking it. She answered ‘No, I just put it in the pan and wipe off my hands (on her clothes).’”

Efforts are underway to educate people that handling wild meat may endanger not only them, but also potentially greater numbers of people in their community and throughout the world.

But even when they know the risks, for most people in this region it is not a matter of choice. As for the woman with the rodent meat, Saylors said, “It’s the only food she had to feed her children.” Poverty is widespread in the South Province of Cameroon, and with a dearth of opportunities, people depend on the forest for their livelihoods through agriculture, hunting, fishing and mining.

Efforts are underway to educate people that handling wild meat may endanger not only them, but also potentially greater numbers of people in their community and throughout the world. Cross-species disease transmission, or zoonosis, has already resulted in the global emergence of diseases that have killed millions of people, such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS and monkeypox. It’s believed that the now eradicated smallpox virus was first transmitted to humans from rodents. Smallpox killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century alone.

About 75 percent of emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic, and the traditional approach to fighting infectious diseases has been to respond to pandemics after they have already spread. In recent years, the incidence of zoonosis has increased. as advances in travel and transportation increase mobility, the rate at which diseases spread rises correspondingly.

For many indigenous people in the remote forests of Africa or the jungles of Asia, hunting is not a sport or recreation as the Western world sees it. Rather, it is a way of life and often a matter of life and death. Just like mankind did thousands of years ago, hunting is the thing that men and women must do to feed their families. “The thing to understand is that people are hunting anything they consider meat. If it moves and it’s in the forest, they’re going to shoot at it and eat it,” Saylors said. “If you have a family of eight to feed and you see an animal that doesn’t look great, maybe has some hair loss and is moving slowly, that won’t stop someone from taking it. There’s a good chance someone will pick it up and sell it or feed it to their family.”

Heifer International has worked with many communities hoping to raise livestock rather than continue harvesting protein from the wild. When offered, these opportunities to set up small-scale livestock operations are welcomed. “It’s better to raise goats. It was a lot of work to hunt,” said Werengani Banda, a Heifer project participant in Malawi who once poached animals from the Kasungu National Park but gladly put his hunting gear aside when given the opportunity to raise goats and plant a garden. His new lifestyle is far easier, he said, because, "goats stay in one place."