Animals can also get sick. They become infected, suffer from bacteria and catch viruses. The closer they are crammed together in the barn, the more likely they are to infect their fellows. Factory farming actually promotes the spread of diseases.
If we eat the meat of sick animals, we can also get sick. However, many pathogens that harm animals are harmless to humans. This applies to swine fever, for example. The corresponding virus can slip into humans, but it does not make us sick. In foot and mouth disease, the virus can infect our cells, but the disease does not endanger us.
Mad cow disease and paratuberculosis affect humans too
Other germs, however, can harm us. This applies, for example, to BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy – better known as mad cow disease. The pathogens – small proteins – can trigger the fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans “with a probability bordering on certainty”; this is how experts formulate it with caution. Because the path of infection has not yet been clearly proven.
Researchers are also unsure about paratuberculosis. Experts are still discussing whether the pathogen in question can trigger chronic intestinal inflammation, Crohn’s disease, in humans. What is certain, however, is that the bird flu virus can also infect and kill people – although this has so far happened relatively rarely. On the other hand, it is more common for people to become infected with salmonella or trichinae because they have eaten contaminated meat.
Farmers have to kill animals when people seem in danger
If an animal disease threatens to break out in Germany, the veterinary authorities of the respective federal states order health checks for the respective animal species. Possibly they force the farmers to lock their animals in the barn or to have them vaccinated. The authorities cordon off the affected areas and set up disinfection basins. If the epidemic spreads beyond Germany’s borders, European authorities also intervene.
When things get bad, sick and infected animals are killed. This is what the Animal Disease Act wants. This is to break the chain of infection. If the authorities believe that people are also in danger, they order healthy animals to be killed as well – for prevention.
In 1985, cattle in Great Britain and Northern Ireland became sick: the animals could no longer stand on their feet, their knees buckled, they crouched on the ground like dogs. After a short time they died miserably.
The mysterious disease soon got a name: bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which translates as a spongy brain disease in cattle. A few years later, mad cow disease had spread across most of Europe. To date, around 200,000 cases of cattle have become known.
Protein threads trigger mad cow disease
BSE is not caused by bacteria or viruses, but by the body’s own proteins, so-called prions. These protein threads sit on the surface of many body cells. However, prions do not make you sick until they have changed their spatial structure. If an incorrectly folded and therefore pathological prion adapts to a healthy one, the healthy protein adapts and it also becomes pathological. This creates a chain reaction, at the end of which there are only infectious prions that seriously damage the nerve cells.
At first only nerve cells in the body are affected. The infection later travels up the spinal cord and eventually spreads to the brain. This is where the typical holes appear: the brain of sick cattle is like a sponge and literally dissolves.
Cows were fed carcass meal
The fact that the disease was able to spread so quickly in Europe is due to the production method for animal feed at the time. The producers processed slaughterhouse waste and carcasses into animal meal. Farmers fed the flour to cattle. Because the processing temperature in animal meal production was so low, pathological prions survived the procedure. The result: Infectious flour was fed to cattle, the animals became sick, died and were processed into flour – a cycle was created.
When researchers and authorities recognized the error, a new regulation came into force in 1996. It stipulates that slaughterhouse waste and carcasses must be exposed to high pressure and a temperature of 133 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes when processing into animal meal in order to kill germs.
Since December 1, 2000, German regulations have prohibited animal meal and animal fat from being fed to animals that are used for food production. The EU authorities have also reacted and in 2001 issued a ban on feeding animal meal to food-producing animals.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: mad cow disease in humans
But can people also get BSE? That has not yet been proven 100 percent. Researchers suspect, however, that infectious proteins from cattle can turn human prions into pathological ones and thus trigger a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
VCJD sufferers suffer from symptoms similar to those of infected cows: At first they have difficulty coordinating their bodies and they move unsteadily. There are also visual disturbances. Within weeks or months, those affected find it increasingly difficult to remember: They have memory lapses, and later they can no longer remember anything. Most die within a year.
BSE tests are designed to protect consumers
The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, the responsible state institute, examined vCJD patients of different ages. The researchers suspect that those affected were infected through beef or products made from cattle.
Rapid tests for BSE have been carried out in EU countries since the end of 2000. In this way, researchers discovered over 400 BSE cases by January 2008 – in Germany alone. That sounds like a success. But the tests only work in animals whose disease has advanced. In addition, the procedures are only possible for slaughtered cattle. A BSE test for live animals does not yet exist.
However, security has increased: Since 2001, meat from untested cattle has not been allowed on the German market. If a sample proves positive in the laboratory, the entire herd of the barn from which the cattle came must be killed. In addition, meat and bone meal may no longer be fed since 2000. Not even on sheep and goats, they can also be infected with the BSE pathogen. Pigs, poultry and fish have not yet been considered to be at risk of BSE, but for safety reasons they are included in the regulation.
Musk meat and milk are harmless
Will BSE Tests Make Our Beef Safe Again? Not quite. If you don’t want to take any risks, you should know that lean meat and milk are very likely to be harmless. Products that may contain remains of the brain, eyes, intestines or spinal cord of cattle are considered at risk. Normally these organ parts are therefore removed from slaughterhouses as a precaution. When shopping and cooking you should consider: There is no absolute protection against the BSE pathogen. The prions are destroyed at a temperature of 133 degrees Celsius at the earliest. Normal cooking or frying is therefore not enough to destroy the pathogen.
Beef stock gelatin can be dangerous
In addition, not only meat products are suspected of mad cow disease. Even harmless delicacies such as gummy bears or fruit cakes can theoretically be dangerous because they contain gelatine. In Germany, gelatine is made from 90 percent pork rind – it does not pose a risk. However, there is also gelatine made from beef.
Therefore, to be on the safe side, always read the information on the packaging . Find out more about the origin of meat and sausages in the supermarket. Organic meat offers a good alternative, especially if an organic farmer has been breeding his cattle for generations and the feed for the animals comes from their own farm.
Not only humans but animals can get flu too. If an influenza virus affects birds, veterinarians speak of bird flu or avian influenza. Avian influenza is rampant in Germany again and again.
At the end of 2003, not only farm animals were infested, but also many wild animals. They just fell dead from the sky. The bird flu virus first appeared in Southeast Asia. It then attacked birds in America, Africa and Europe.
Avian flu pathogens cannot simply spread from animals to humans. Because the cell receptors are different – the animal virus is like a key that does not fit the human organism. That sounds reassuring. But in Asia over 200 people died from the pathogen. It is possible that this virus variant had already adapted somewhat to humans.
Scientists fear that the bird flu virus could continue to mutate and adopt properties of the human flu virus. Then the pathogen would be able to infect people even more easily. And it could be transmitted from person to person and spread like an epidemic.
Boil eggs, cook meat well
It is not yet known whether you can also endanger yourself by eating infected chickens or turkeys. But experts do not rule this out. The possible consequences: symptoms that are reminiscent of a normal flu , up to fatal pneumonia.
Therefore, sausage with poultry meat is not necessarily recommended if the product was not heated during production. Because the virus doesn’t like heat. If you heat food to over 70 degrees Celsius, you kill the pathogen. You should therefore cook the poultry and eggs thoroughly.
If you blow out raw eggs at Easter, you should rinse them with hot water beforehand to be on the safe side. Store raw poultry products separately. After defrosting poultry meat, dispose of the packaging and the defrosted water.
Stay away from strange poultry
The bird flu virus is mainly found in bird droppings. But you can also get infected by inhaling or touching sick birds. In Germany, however, the risk of infection is very low. To do this, you would have to get close to the animals.
When traveling to countries with bird flu, you should avoid direct contact with poultry. Do not visit poultry markets. Avoid raw or insufficiently fried poultry meat and dishes with raw eggs.
And please consider: Cats and dogs can also be infected with bird flu. Therefore, you or your children should not stroke every cat that is running around in the same way. Because scientists have already detected the bird flu virus in domestic cats, large cats and martens.
Swine fever is a catastrophe for a farmer – because he can lose a lot of money. However, the virus does not harm his health. Even if he eats the chop of an infected pig, he won’t get sick.
However, people can transmit the virus: via clothing, shoes or hands. In this way, the pathogen gets into other stables or fattening systems.
Piglets usually die first in swine fever. Later, older pigs also get sick. The animals refuse to feed, are weak and have red or blue spots on their skin and ears. Before the farmer sees the symptoms, the animals excrete the virus: They infect their conspecifics through saliva, urine or excrement.
The pathogen can affect domestic pigs and wild boars alike. Wild boars can be protected with oral vaccinations: the vaccine is added to feed bait.
Foot and mouth disease
Farmers fear foot and mouth disease: It kills cattle, pigs, goats and sheep. Wild animals can also become infected: red deer and fallow deer die from the virus, as do wild boars and hedgehogs. Even elephants can get sick – but humans don’t need to worry.
Foot and mouth disease is transmitted through contaminated food, feces, saliva, milk or air. The wind sometimes carries the pathogen over 60 kilometers. It probably even wanders up to 200 kilometers over water.
Sick animals usually develop a fever. Blisters form on the tongue, mouth, udder and claws. Foamy saliva forms in front of the mouth, the typical foot-and-mouth disease beard. If the virus has infected even a single animal in the stable, there is no rescue for all the others: According to the foot and mouth disease ordinance, the entire herd must be killed.
People experience the disease like a cold
According to the Friedrich Loeffler Institute for Animal Health, there is no need to fear foot and mouth disease. Since the hygiene regulations in Germany are strict, the consumption of meat or dairy products is safe, even if the epidemic is already rampant in German stables. Infected products would hardly have a chance of getting to you.
However, you can become infected if you have direct contact with sick animals. However, the risk of infection is not very high. If you are caught, you will notice it from a slight fever, headache and aching limbs. Blisters form on the mouth, throat, hands and feet. But don’t panic: it’s all harmless and heals quickly.
In addition, Germany is now considered free from foot-and-mouth disease. The last sick cattle were killed ten years ago in a stable near Hanover.
Have you brought a delicious wild boar sausage from your vacation? Or a delicious raw ham? Then be careful: Trichinae can live in such souvenirs. Trichinae are worms, more precisely: the larvae of the nematode Trichinella.
It is unlikely that you will be infected with it in Germany. Because in the EU it is mandatory that veterinarians examine slaughtered animals for trichinae or that the animals are treated with cold so that the pathogens die. However, not every slaughtered animal is checked. If a company is officially trichina-free or a region is considered to be less endangered, only random checks are often made. That is why people in Germany are repeatedly infected with trichinae.
The parasite sits in the intestines and muscles
The roundworm is a parasite and is preferred for domestic and wild boars. But it can attack all types of mammals and humans. You can get infected with the worm if you eat infected meat or sausage.
The larvae nest in the intestine and grow into worms there. After about a week, the female parasites release larvae. The mini-worms migrate through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. They get into the entire body, for example into the diaphragm, the chewing muscles or the muscles of the upper arms. There they nest in the tissue and encapsulate themselves.
The consequences: diarrhea and fever, nausea and vomiting. There are also severe muscle, head and joint pain. Symptoms appear within five days to three weeks and then slowly get lighter. Worryingly, trichinae can survive in muscle fibers for up to 30 years.
It becomes dangerous when the parasites attack the heart muscle. In the worst case, the heart, circulation or kidneys can fail. Life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias or inflammation of the meninges can occur.
Throw out the uninvited guests
You should treat trichinae with medication as soon as possible. The sooner, the better the chances of recovery. If the larvae are still scurrying around in the intestine, they can be combated with a wormer that your doctor will prescribe. Once the parasites have encapsulated themselves in the muscle tissue, fighting them is more difficult.
You can prevent uninvited guests from entering by frying or boiling meat. This kills the larvae. Smoking, curing or drying doesn’t help. You should ask about the origin of such sausage products.
If you want to be on the safe side, freeze the beasts: for at least 20 days at minus 15 degrees Celsius. It’s faster with heat: 65 degrees Celsius reliably kills the parasites.
Salmonella live in ice cream, puddings, raw milk cheese, raw meat or sausage that is not sufficiently heated during production. Foods that contain raw eggs, such as mayonnaise or desserts, are also risky as they are not cooked. Even sprouts, tomatoes or smoked eels can transmit the bacteria, scientists suspect.
Salmonella are really tough bacteria. They thrive at temperatures between 10 to 47 degrees Celsius, and even freezing doesn’t shock them. On the contrary: if you thaw contaminated food, the bacilli will multiply.
Flies can leave salmonella in food
Studies by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment show that around ten percent of German fattening turkeys and around thirteen percent of German fattening pigs have salmonella. The animals do not necessarily get sick, but they do transmit the bacilli.
You don’t necessarily have to get salmonella from bad meat from the butcher. The microbes can also be transmitted by other animals: infected mice, pets or even insects can contaminate food with the bacilli.
You can also get infected through direct contact with human contemporaries who are currently suffering from salmonellosis. Those affected do not need to know anything about it themselves. Because not every person who carries the germs does the disease break out openly. A handshake or touching objects is often sufficient for infection.
The body wants to get rid of the pests quickly
If you have salmonella in your intestines, you are likely to get diarrhea and feel sick. Because the body tries to get the microbes out as quickly as possible. Usually everything is over after two days. However, it can be more protracted for elderly or sick people. In any case, you should drink a lot as you will lose a lot of fluids because of the diarrhea.
In very rare cases, the salmonella remain in the human body, although the food poisoning is long gone. Those affected are no longer sick, but permanently excrete the germs with the stool. This is risky because it can infect other people. This is why certain professions are taboo for them: They are not allowed to work in restaurants, groceries, hotels, or in childcare or health care if they come into contact with food.
You should only eat meat and poultry well-cooked. When preparing it, make sure that you wash your hands after processing raw poultry. You should also carefully wash the cutlery and cutting boards used.
Paratuberculosis is a form of tuberculosis. The trigger is bacteria. The microbes attack ruminants such as cattle, sheep, goats, roe deer and deer. In these animals, the pathogens cause incurable intestinal inflammation.
It is still unclear whether the bacteria can also be dangerous to humans. Experts are currently discussing this. It is possible that the pathogen causing paratuberculosis can trigger chronic intestinal inflammation in Crohn’s disease. According to the state Robert Koch Institute and the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, however, this is controversial.
The experts also do not agree on the routes of infection. Contact with sick animals is considered risky. Milk, cheese, yoghurt and quark were also suspected at times of transmitting the bacteria to humans. But some nutrition experts consider this fear to be exaggerated, as these products are mostly pasteurized. The heat kills many germs.
However, paratuberculosis pathogens are very resistant: They survive in water, in soil, even in liquid manure.