Food Safety in Culture

March 28, 2020

Written by Jenna McHugh

The idea that a weapon of mass destruction can lie seemingly dormant in an animal, but pass quickly to humans (yet to be confirmed by scientific literature for this pandemic, but come on) and kill over 20, 000 people in a span of four months can seem somewhat ludicrous when the tale is put bluntly. Yet, here we stand. Scientists are hypothesizing that this strand of the zoonotic Coronavirus spread from a bat, spilling over to humans through an intermediate animal, and in this particular case the culprit is a pangolin, sold at a wet market in China. In recent history, we’ve seen other epidemics such as H1N1 originating in Mexico in 2009, and MERS beginning in Jordan in 2012, jumping from an animal into humans, pigs in the case of H1N1 and from bats to camels for MERS. The Coronavirus is not the first virus of its kind or the first outbreak to originate in China and wreak havoc. The closely aligned SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 follows a similar path as COVID-19. The SARS coronavirus began in a bat, spread to a civet cat and was sold as food in a Chinese wet market, killing over 8000. The common denominator in multiple instances is the bat, a notorious vector. Bats are the world’s only flying mammal, and due to their immune response, they don’t fall ill from the same viruses like humans do. Our human immune response to the virus is what makes us sick.

In development of a critique to the response and future implications of the pandemic, drawing the contrasts between race and culture is useful. Culture is “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious or social group also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time.” This is different from race, “a: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock, b: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits or characteristics, 3c: a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits”. The definitions offer subtle differences between practices of people, and characteristics of people. Often, race and culture are conflated and are intertwined. As globalism increases, the intersection between race and culture becomes less prominent. The racial response of the pandemic is unwarranted, but that does not mean that the rest of the world should not critique the cultural practices that are creating the circumstances and the perfect environment for the spread of Coronavirus between animals and humans.

China was experiencing a famine 61 years ago due to the communist regime and economic mismanagement. At the time, individuals weren’t allowed to own farms and 45 million people died. In 1978, the Chinese government surrendered control of farming. When that happened major agriculture companies had great success, which left smaller farmers to catch and raise wild animals as a way to sustain themselves financially. These were backyard operations for those in poverty that were encouraged by the government so citizens could make a living. In 1988, the wildlife farming industry was born when the government enacted a wildlife protection law, leading to the domestication and breeding of wild animals- more variety and more animals in each farm leads to more viruses developed and spread.

Wet markets are where these animals are brought together to be chopped and prepped, bought and sold, and taken home by people looking to cook the “freshest and healthiest” meat one can buy. These types of under-regulated wet markets pose a severe health and safety risk, not only to the individuals buying the animal, but as it stands now there is a dominating case for the globe to be concerned. Humans can contract zoonotic virus from: direct and indirect contact, vector bore, foodborne and waterborne methods. This means that coming into contact with saliva, blood, urine, feces or other bodily fluids of an infected animal, through petting, and bites or scratches. Furthermore, coming into contact with areas where the animal lived, like a cage or coop, being bitten by a vector like a tick or mosquito, eating contaminated or uncooked meat or drinking water that has been contaminated by an infected animal.

Many exotic animals that are eaten for food have also been marketed as traditional medicines and looking into the laws that ban these practices is hairy. A cultural shift and an attitude change is necessary as some Chinese believe that exotic animals can be an important status symbol. A study published six years ago, indicated there was an increase in percentages of those stating that wildlife should not be consumed, however, results indicated a long way to go with only 52% of those surveyed agreeing. Consumers with higher income and educational background have higher wildlife consumption rates, which the government seeks to exploit and maintain for profit. Furthermore, from 2008 to 2012 there was no significant difference in wildlife consumption across the country. Actual consumers did not seem to have knowledge regarding the laws for protecting wildlife, with a gap between an attitude for protection and actual consumption. More research and understanding is needed to accurately reflect perceptions of wildlife consumption in 2020; residents of Beijing and Shanghai indicated stronger support for wildlife protection which may be indicative of public awareness education campaigns.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, China has closed the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, where it is hypothesized this strain of the virus first made contact with humans, and halted the consumption and farming of wild animals with a ban. However, the industry for exotic animals in China is almost as big as the North American sports media industry, at over 73 billion dollars in 2017. After the SARS outbreak almost 20 years ago, China banned wet markets and the sale of wild animals in response. By 2004, the wildlife industry was up and running again when the ban was lifted by the government. That is not to say those within China are not concerned or encouraging the closure of these wet markets for public health reasons, recognizing the historical context of wet markets and advocating for change. The majority of Chinese do not consume wildlife. Furthermore, food safety is the most concerning issue for Chinese people as of 2011, the majority of food safety incident reports are caused by toxic animals or plants. The large profits of the industry encourage the government regime to continue the practices.

What China and other countries do is on a global stage. There are implications for the 7.5 billion people on the planet when public health food safety is disregarded. We have seen Coronavirus, like SARS before, now COVID-19, and this will not be the last. The bombarding focus on social stigma was a misstep by organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO went on to release a COVID-19 Social Stigma Guideline for governments, media, and organizations explaining what stigma is, why it’s bad and how to mitigate it. However, this approach ultimately inhibits a deeper understanding of the root of the problem: the cultural attitudes and practices of wildlife consumption in China and the policies that support this industry. Perhaps, focus from the WHO should have been recognizing the seriousness of the pandemic earlier, instead of worrying about language regarding the spread, “Don’t talk about people “transmitting COVID-19” “infecting others” or “spreading the virus” as it implies intentional transmission and assigns blame.” As instructed by the WHO, communication from universities has been erring on the side of political correctness to divert attention away from China to help curb the unfortunate levels of racisms that would ensue. For example:

“McMaster is a diverse community that deeply values inclusion and respect. As the world manages the COVID-19 outbreak, it is important to remember that the virus is not connected to race but to geography.”

Assuming that McMaster was referring to human geography in this comment, “the study of the interrelationships between people, place, and environment, and how these vary spatially and temporally across and between locations,” the message seems to negate the critique of culture and government structures that enabled wet markets, and in turn, the Coronavirus. McMaster University prides itself on the development of problem-based learning, a teaching philosophy that encourages students to use the problems they are facing to promote the learning. However, the communication has seemingly sought to denounce inquiry and encourage a softer more forgiving public opinion. I would agree with the above that respect and inclusion are of the utmost importance during a worldwide pandemic and race did not play a role in this pandemic, but government disregard and cultural practice did.

Globalism has presented an interesting challenge during this pandemic. The operation or planning of economic and foreign policy on a global scale has many benefits: international trade, higher standards of living, economic efficiency, and travel. Pandemics are, of course, not on this list because globalism is what escalates the spread of a virus into a pandemic. There are some scenarios that may have played out to put globalism on the positive side of pandemics. For instance, health resources could have flocked to China to stop the threat and warnings could have ensued quickly, allowing countries to take earlier measures of precaution had the country not attempted to cover up the threat of the Coronavirus. Had the Chinese regime been more open to reporting on the outbreak, the number of cases, and deaths, across the globe could have been heavily reduced.

As it stands, WHO works with national governments, academia, non-governmental and philanthropic organizations to prevent and manage the threats and the public health, social and economic impacts by:

“1. Fostering cross-sectoral collaboration at the human-animal-environment interface among the different relevant sectors at international, regional, and national levels. 2. Developing capacity and promoting practical, evidence-based, and cost-effective tools and mechanisms for zoonoses prevention, surveillance and detection, reporting, epidemiological and laboratory investigation, risk assessment, and control, and assisting countries in their implementation. 3. Supporting the development of relevant policies, strategies and sustainable programmes to prevent and reduce risks and manage outbreaks, and by facilitating their implementation.”

WHO also placed a global pandemic as one of its top 10 priorities in 2019, but perhaps the WHO along with, Food and Agricultural Organizations of the United Nations, and the World Organisation for Animal Health should become more forceful about banning wet market and maintain a unified approach to severely discourage wet markets and the wildlife trade.

What needs to happen next will be what shapes globalism, world public health, and the threat of the outbreaks to come in the future. There is an argument to be made for an overarching governing body to implement food safety guidelines worldwide and assists countries in working towards these practices. Currently, in response to the pandemic, China has placed a ban on wet markets and the sale of wildlife. Public opinion around the globe is urging China to keep this ban permanent, unlike the aftermath of SARS. In order to do away with the majority of these risks, bans should be encouraged across the world. Countries in South America and across Asia should be receiving these messages as a call to action, severely discourage wet markets and any wildlife farming and brainstorm alternative methods for economic success for populations. The financial gains of the industry must now take a backseat to the health of the world. This is an ideal opportunity for WHO to step-up and regain any validity lost during this pandemic. These concerns of food safety will exist for many years, until all countries of the world establish ingrained food safety standards into their federal and local governments.

Jenna McHugh is the Founding Editor of Vigor. Follow her at @jennoratorr.

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