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Animal Welfare and Food Safety

Oct. 19, 2018

The 2011 movie Contagion tells a fictional story of how globalization and ease of travel can produce fast-spreading pandemics, killing people more quickly than government authorities can respond. The culprit for this Hollywood illness is a new virus of unknown origin, resistant to all known vaccines.

It isn’t until the end of the movie that the origin of the killer is revealed. It all began (spoiler alert) with a bat carrying a piece of banana to a hog farm. The bat manages to fly into an enclosed building where sad-looking hogs are housed in tight quarters. The bat drops the banana on the floor, where it is quickly eaten by a hog. Presumably, the banana or the bat carried a virus, which spread to the pigs. One of the pigs is then slaughtered, and a man carving the meat in China fails to wash his hands before he shakes the hand of a character played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who then travels back to the United States where she dies—but not before sickening many others.

The premise of Contagion is that raising hogs on “factory farms” encourages the emergence of deadly pathogens. How accurate is this caricature? In reality, a bat is more likely to drop food near hogs or chickens raised outdoors. Would the movie have been more realistic if the bat infected a pig raised on an organic farm, a farm where animals roamed “free range,” or a farm owned by a small producer slaughtering his own animals and selling locally? Or would a more accurate film show the bat shedding feces near a field of broccoli, sickening people consuming fruits and vegetables instead of meat? Is it true that animal welfare and food safety are trade-offs, or are they instead complements? When we pay more for humane meat, are we also getting safer food or are we accepting greater risk? These are the questions we investigate in the present article.