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Asian firms top list of protein producers at risk of incubating next pandemic

February 16, 2022

Nearly two-thirds of the world’s largest meat, fish, and dairy suppliers are at high risk of incubating the next global pandemic, according to a new report by investor network FAIRR

Titled “Industry Reinfected,” FAIRR’s report examines 60 corporates worth a combined $363 billion which supply some of the planet’s biggest retail stores and restaurant chains.

FAIRR — which represents investors with a combined $48 trillion in assets under management — ranked these companies by scoring them across six categories seen as risk factors in the emergence and spread of zoonotic diseases (that is, diseases which are transmitted to humans from other animals.)

These six factors are deforestation and biodiversity; antibiotics use; waste and pollution management; working conditions; food safety; and animal welfare. The companies’ support for development of alt-proteins, which could slow or reduce intensive livestock production, was also taken into consideration.

Chinese meat processor Sunner was the worst performer overall, closely followed by compatriots Fucheng and Shunxin Agriculture.

Indian poultry company Venky’s and Japan’s Prima Ham took fourth and fifth place, respectively.

JBS, Fonterra, Thai Union, and Tyson Foods are among the other large agrifood companies ranked in the report.

Nearly two-thirds of top protein producers are ‘high risk’

FAIRR’s Emerging Disease Risk Ranking methodology found that 38 of the 60 companies covered in the report, or 63%, represent a “high risk” in terms of perpetuating conditions for future zoonotic pandemics.

That’s actually an improvement from 2020’s inaugural disease risk report, where 73% of companies ranked as high risk. Despite this progress, FAIRR says “too little has been done” since then.

  • This year, for two risk factors — waste and pollution, and deforestation and biodiversity — over three-quarters of the companies (98% and 76%, respectively) are ranked as ‘high risk.’
  • Just three companies — Mowi, Greig Seafood, and Leroy Seafood — are ranked as “low risk.” All three are aquaculture companies.
  • “Medium-risk” companies include North American protein giants such as Hormel, Louis Dreyfus Company, Maple Leaf Foods, Sanderson Farms, and Tyson.

The One Health approach

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) recognizes seven factors, all human-mediated, driving the emergence of zoonotic disease. Five of these factors are linked directly to intensive livestock production, including an increased demand for protein and “unsustainable agricultural intensification.”

The world’s attention for the last few years has been largely focused on responding to the current pandemic, rather than preventing the next one. But as the UNEP has noted, the frequency of pathogens moving from animals to people is increasing; and, of all new infectious diseases that emerge, 75% jump from one species to another.

Intensive livestock farming operations are notorious for their cramped living conditions for animals, low genetic diversity, and poor working conditions for humans – all of which can drive the spread of disease. FAIRR’s report argues that more must be done to hold meat producers accountable for disclosing such risks and adopting more transparency in their operations. 

“The emergence of diseases that move between animals and humans has increased markedly in the past decade,” David Nabarro, World Health Organization special envoy on Covid-19, said in the report. “Hence the importance of concerted action by governments, sectors, institutions, civil society, indigenous peoples, youth, and more […] to adapt systems for preventing pandemics and countering the inequity of infectious disease.”

The cost of preventing a pandemic through the One Health approach — a global collaboration which aims to achieve “optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment” — is estimated at between $22 billion and $31 billion. FAIRR says this is “several orders of magnitude less” than the estimated trillions in costs from the Covid-19 pandemic.

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