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Marking two years of COVID-19, new research warns failure to improve crowded, high-stress conditions in animal agriculture fosters an ideal breeding ground for new emerging diseases.

  • 63% of large meat, fish and dairy producers are failing to take adequate steps to prevent future zoonotic pandemics, finds FAIRR’s Emerging Disease Risk Ranking

  • None of seven large meat giants (including Tyson Foods (US) and JBS USA) plans to extend enhanced sick leave to prevent sick employees from attending work

  • “Business-as-usual animal agriculture risks incubating the next zoonotic pandemic, posing both intolerable investment risk and a threat to global public health. The sector must improve rapidly, starting with welfare conditions for both animals and workers.” Jeremy Coller, Chair of the FAIRR Initiative

(London, 16 February 2022). Global meat giants such as Cal-Maine Foods (US) and New Hope Liuhe (China), both suppliers to high-street names such as Walmart*, are among 38 firms criticised by investors for failing to tackle and/or disclose information on conditions and practices that could enable new diseases to emerge and spread.

Three out of four new diseases are zoonotic ones like COVID-19 (i.e., they cross from animals to humans). And since COVID-19 emerged two years ago, there has been increasing pressure on the meat industry to tackle conditions in intensive facilities and meatpacking plants, which tend to oversee highly stressed, crowded animals with lower genetic diversity and indoor confinement, increasing the risk of zoonotic disease emergence and transmission. United Nations research shows that four of the seven human-mediated factors most likely to drive the emergence of a new zoonotic pandemic are directly linked to agricultural intensification and increasing meat consumption.

Yet new research from the FAIRR Initiative, a network backed by investors managing over $48 trillion of assets, found that 38 of 60 (63%) large listed meat, fish and dairy producers ranked ‘High Risk’ on its Emerging Disease Risk Ranking, meaning they score poorly across a set of seven criteria vital to preventing future zoonotic pandemics, such as welfare conditions for both animals and workers. This is a slight improvement from the 73% score in June 2020 but still shows that the vast majority are performing poorly. Eight of the ten worst performing companies in the ranking are based in Asia.

FAIRR also reveals that following an engagement between investors and seven of the world’s largest meat firms (including Tyson Foods (US) and JBS USA), six of seven companies temporarily enhanced sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent unfit employees from attending work but none of seven has yet adopted such policies permanently. This risks perpetuating a culture where sick workers, who may be exposed to new strains or new diseases, feel financial pressure to come to work.

Since the pandemic began, several high-level intergovernmental panels have looked at zoonotic disease risks, but have largely focused on pandemic response rather than prevention. Policies have recently been enacted in some countries on deforestation, the illegal wildlife trade, and to respond to the risk of mutation of COVID-19 in fur farms. Improved transparency and disclosure of key climate, labour and nature-related risks could provide the necessary incentives for companies to improve their practices.

Jeremy Coller, Chair and Founder of the FAIRR Initiative, and Chief Investment Officer of Coller Capital, said:

“From avian and swine flu to COVID-19, it’s time for meat companies and policymakers to learn from COVID-19 and to invest in preventing the next pandemic.

“Intensive farming environments, housing most of the 70 billion farm animals reared every year, are a known breeding ground for disease. Aggravating factors like low genetic diversity, cramped enclosures and poor working conditions that do not offer adequate sick pay amplify this risk many times over.

“The message from the markets is clear. Following SARS, swine flu and Ebola, COVID-19 must be a line in the sand. Business-as-usual animal agriculture risks incubating the next zoonotic pandemic, posing both an intolerable investment risk and a threat to global public health. The sector must improve rapidly, starting with welfare conditions for both animals and workers.”

David Nabarro, Special Envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization (WHO), said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is an existential global crisis with multiple impacts including at least five million people dying, millions affected by long COVID and increases in poverty and malnutrition that are still being understood. There is a global recession with pernicious impacts on the lives and livelihoods of poor people everywhere: its repercussions will be felt for years to come.

“The emergence of diseases that move between animals and humans has increased markedly in the past decade.  Hence the importance of concerted action by governments, sectors, institutions, civil society, indigenous peoples, youth and more, convened by the World Health Organization, to adapt systems for preventing pandemics and countering the inequity of infectious disease.”

Dr Maria Neira**, Director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO),** said:

“The way we currently produce and consume food is pushing the natural world to its limits. Land-use change and deforestation, driven in large part by agricultural and livestock intensification, is driving the emergence of new zoonotic diseases as habitat loss puts wildlife into close contact with humans and farm animals.

“The impact of COVID-19 on our collective health and economic wellbeing is unfathomable. We must do everything in our power to reduce the risk of a new pandemic emerging, and in this, the importance of sustainable food systems cannot be understated.”

Methodology and further results

Companies’ Emerging Disease Risk Ranking combines six risk factors that contribute to the outbreak of emerging diseases in intensive animal production: Deforestation & Biodiversity, Antibiotics, Waste & Pollution, Working Conditions, Food Safety and Animal Welfare. Exposure to alternative proteins is also taken into consideration as an opportunity factor.

The Emerging Diseases Risk Ranking uses data from the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index, which assesses 60 of the largest publicly listed animal protein producers, worth a combined $363 billion, against ten environmental, social and governance (ESG)-related factors.

For two of the risk factors, Waste & Pollution and Deforestation & Biodiversity, 98%** and 76% of companies, respectively, are categorised as “High Risk”. Antibiotic use is still a low-performing metric, with 64% of companies falling into the “High Risk” category, an improvement from the 77% in last year’s report.

Intensive animal production raises the risk of new animal-to-human (zoonotic) diseases emerging and spreading, through:

  • Driving deforestation, risking zoonotic disease transmission through direct human-wildlife contact, vector-borne transmission and exposure to wildlife body fluids;

  • Intensive animal production processes providing an ideal environment for new strains to emerge and spread, involving high stress, crowded conditions, lowered genetic diversity, live transport, and indoor confinement;

  • Disease-friendly working conditions, accelerating transmission through factors including long working hours, proximity to other workers, cold working temperatures, and insufficient protective gear.

The COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is the most destructive of a string of zoonotic diseases to emerge in recent decades, including SARS, H1N1 Swine Flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, Zika and Nipah.

Alex Burr, ESG Policy Lead, Legal & General Investment Management said:

“The FAIRR Emerging Disease Ranking is a wake-up call for the meat industry. As a leading global investor, we seek clarity from companies within the meat industry to understand whether and how their practices may be viewed as causal or contributing factors to a future pandemic, be that from a zoonotic disease like COVID-19 or from the ‘silent pandemic’ of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). 

“As policymakers look to strengthen approaches to pandemic preparedness and prevention, they must not overlook how greater transparency in the market can help. Policymakers should consider how they integrate such emerging risks as they seek to develop a comprehensive, robust, and internationally harmonised corporate sustainability reporting standard.”

Notes to editor

*Information correct as of November 2021<br />**Excludes aquaculture companies

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