The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared today, June 7, Food Safety Day. We’re excited about how the innovations of plant-based and cell-based meat can help us address two of the greatest safety challenges associated with conventional meat production:
- Fecal contamination
- Accelerating antibiotic resistance
We regularly see notices of beef, chicken, and turkey recalls due to pathogenic contamination. Case in point: at the end of May, the USDA issued a recall for 62,000 pounds of raw beef because of possible E. coli contamination. And industrial animal agriculture is responsible for much more than just these direct cases of food poisoning. Feces from livestock runoff from feedlots and out of manure lagoons into water subsequently used for irrigation. This water often contaminates greens (as in the recent romaine recalls) as well as other crops.
Incidents of acute food poisoning are only the most visible cases where industrial animal agriculture harms human health. The less obvious but much more insidious threat is from antimicrobial-resistant “superbugs.”
Modern industrial animal agriculture is perfectly configured to drive the evolution of new and deadlier superbugs. Animals raised in confined situations are consistently fed low doses of antibiotics in an attempt to keep them healthy and to promote weight gain. The vast majority of antibiotics produced in the world today are used this way. And the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is projected to grow by almost 70 percent between 2010 and 2030.
Chronic low doses of antibiotics kill off many bacteria while enabling resistant strains of pathogens like E. coli, salmonella, and others to multiply and continue to evolve further resistance.
Hundreds of thousands of people die from antimicrobial-resistant infections each year. If current trends continue, diseases caused by drug-resistant microbes could cost the world $100 trillion dollars and kill 9.5 to 10 million people annually by 2050. This constitutes a greater mortality rate than today’s rate of deaths from cancer.
Science magazine found that “Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is increasing, driven by widespread antibiotic use. … Forecasts of the economic costs are similar to those of a 2°C rise in global average surface temperature.” A review by the UK government found that the threat to the human race from antibiotic resistance is “more certain” than the threat from climate change.
Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England, has repeatedly warned that the world faces an antibiotic “apocalypse” in which common illnesses become untreatable and common operations become life-threatening.
Want a world where a simple scraped knee could become deadly? That is where we are headed. But it doesn’t have to be.
New forms of meat production
We can produce the volume of meat the global population demands with sustainable methods that don’t require chronic use of antibiotics and that eliminate feces from the equation. Enter: plant-based and cell-based meat.
Demand for products from plant-based manufacturers like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods is currently exceeding supply as more and more people choose burgers and sausages made directly from plants. With no “middleman” (aka, the pig or turkey), there are no intestines, and thus no fecal contamination. And no antibiotic use, either.
Cell-based meat (producing meat directly from animal cells—and once again bypassing the animal in animal ag) is another way to remove fecal contamination and chronic, low-dose antibiotic use from the meat supply chain.
While antibiotics are used in many academic research labs to reduce the contamination risk posed by heavy human handling in bench-scale research, commercial cell-based meat won’t be produced in a research lab. It will be produced in large-scale facilities, using fully-developed, clean, antibiotic-free, GMP-certified techniques—along with sensitive detection methods—that have been perfected by the biopharma and cell-therapy industries. The cell-based meat industry can also leverage insights from the long-standing fermentation industry, which has been using operational controls and closed systems to culture other types of cells (like yeast or beneficial bacteria) for food for hundreds of years.
Happy Food Safety Day!
So, on Food Safety Day, we posit that there is a better option than making marginal improvements to concentrated animal feeding operations and the inherent challenges of contamination: let’s just stop raising and slaughtering animals.
We can make meat without animal slaughter, and it will be better for everyone. The World Health Organization—and every other NGO and government concerned with public health—should invest today in shifting to clean, efficient, slaughter-free meat production that will protect public health.