Animal Health and Food Safety: Creative Story Angles for Health Journalists   

By Beatrice M. Spadacini

Do you remember mad cow disease? It happened in the mid-1990s in the United Kingdom and resulted in over 4.4 million animals slaughtered in the U.K. alone. Not to mention, the economic impact because of bans on imports of British beef throughout Europe and the toll these had on British farmers. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is the scientific name of this fatal neurological disease that affects cows but can be transmitted to humans through the food supply chain. People who eat meat from infected cows can get a version of this disease known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob, which has the potential to become, in a relative short time, a fatal brain disease.

Image of a cow
Photo by Patrick Baum on Unsplash

You can understand why keeping animals healthy and preventing bacteria and pathogens from entering the food supply chain is critical to human health. This topic, which was the focus of a Twitter chat hosted by the HJN the last week of November 2022, sought to actively encourage journalists to report stories from a One Health approach. This focus requires adopting a cross-cutting view of human, animal, and environmental health. Unfortunately, animal health and food safety are rarely covered in the news unless there is a crisis – like mad cow disease. Luckily, some people spend a lifetime monitoring disease spillover.

Alessandro Ripani, a veterinary officer with the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale of Abruzzo and Molise (IZS Teramo) in Italy—one of two panelists at the HJN Twitter chat—highlighted the importance of reporting on animal health and welfare for protecting human health.

“Over the last few decades, 75% of emerging diseases have come from animals. It is estimated that by 2050, we will need 70% of animal protein to feed the global population. Yet, 20% of global animal production losses are caused by animal diseases, which have a direct impact on food security.”

Alessandro Ripani, Veterinarian Officer

Understanding the factors that impact animal health is critical and will become even more so in the years to come because of shifts in weather patterns and the impact this will have on animals.

Established in 1941 with only six people, IZS now has more than 500 employees including global health experts committed to protecting human health by promoting animal health and food safety. One of the ways they achieve this is also by strengthening diseases surveillance across Africa through technology transfers, research, and capacity building.

Forging Partnerships Across Africa

“Our projects are managed from the bottom up,” said Massimo Scacchia, a veterinary doctor with the IZS and many years of experience working alongside veterinarians across Africa and the Middle East.

“The idea to set up a network of veterinarians came from our African partners. This network is called ERFAN (Enhancing Research For Africa Network) and we define our priorities together. For example, zoonotic diseases, but also food safety because food hygiene is critical. In Africa, for instance, we see many intestinal ailments. They are often linked to food quality, food hygiene, and water contamination. We seek to improve the health of the animal population, while also protecting human health and the food supply chain. We started with 15 partners, and we are now 55: six Italians and 29 Africans from 18 countries.”

Scacchia says the network is primarily focused on studying traditional zoonotic diseases such as Brucellosis, Bovine Tuberculosis, West Nile Virus, Rift Valley fever, Rabies, and emerging Coronaviruses. Diagnosis of some of these diseases can be challenging. “The symptoms of Brucellosis, for instance, are very similar to malaria, thus it is often underestimated or misdiagnosed,” he added. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that is often transmitted to humans through unpasteurized dairy products. Scientists estimate that more than 500,000 cases of Brucellosis alone are reported worldwide each year.

Another area that veterinarians across Africa focus on is meat from wild animals or “bushmeat,” because many diseases spillover into the human species when people eat undercooked or raw meat. “Animals such as chimpanzees, monkeys, bats, rodents, porcupines, and even snakes can carry diseases,” says Scacchia. “This is how the Ebola outbreak happened in 2014. When humans touch the blood or the meat of an infected animal, they can become fatally ill. Our work is to study the bacteria, the virus, and the parasites that live in these animals before there is an outbreak or an epidemic of concern.”

Championing One Health

Veterinarians have understood the connection between animal and human health long before the age of pandemics. Afterall, humans and animals coexist in many cultures and disease spillover is nothing new. But it has accelerated due to increase in travel, temperature rising, urbanization, and population growth. Collaboration between sectors is now more essential than ever, and IZS is taking note of this.

“Since the 2003 and 2004 avian influenza outbreaks, international organizations have put a lot of emphasis on intersectoral collaboration. Today four organizations form a united partnership on this front: the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (WOAH), and the United Nation Environment Program (UNEP),” explains Ripani. “At the international level there is an awareness that we must break the siloes. We must strive to translate this at all levels, including regional and national.”

Ripani and Scacchia challenged journalists to dig deeper into this underreported One Health pillar. “Animal health is linked to at least six of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals,” said Scacchia. “Healthy animals reduce hunger by producing more meat and animal byproducts; they foster economic growth through income generation; and fuel a job ecosystem that depends on their wellbeing. They also have a strong immune system, which translates into less Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and a lower risk of disease spillover into humans.”

IZS of Teramo works closely with journalists to improve public health literacy. “It’s about translating the science with appropriate messages, while keeping it rooted in science-based evidence. This is not easy,” underscored Ripani. “Journalists and researchers should be in conversation always and not just during a crisis. We must learn from each other how to translate the science without oversimplifying it.”