Indian Meat Industry

India is the eighth largest producer of meat in the world and the leading producer of liquid milk, and yet the industry is so poorly regulated that the vast majority of slaughterhouses are unregistered, and lacking in basic facilities like water, electricity, ventilation, drainage, and waste disposal.

Animals are slaughtered on the open ground with little regard for their suffering or for good hygiene practices. There is little or no veterinary inspection, and the meat is sold, usually unpacked, in unsanitary retail outlets which further expose meat to contaminants including pathogenic microbes which makes the meat a serious risk for human health.

From trading to slaughter to sale, there are serious failings at every stage that contribute to the 100 million cases of foodborne diseases each year and to the poor international image of an unhygienic Indian meat industry. No wonder, the consumption of meat in India is considered by many to be ‘a gamble’.

Meat Industry

A large proportion of the Indian population across all religious groups consume meat in one form or another, and demand for meat is growing.

Yet, it is impossible to find accurate statistics on just how many animals are slaughtered because of the huge number of illegal slaughterhouses operating in the country, and also because the dozen states where cow slaughter is banned declare no data relating to bovines, even though the numbers killed are known to be significant.

Indian Slaughterhouses

Across the country, 4,000 slaughterhouses are registered with local bodies. However, just 11 stand-alone slaughterhouses and 68 integrated abattoirs and processing plants are approved by APEDA.

Compare that with the 25,000-plus unregistered premises that operate illegally, and from which comes most of the meat for domestic consumption – poultry, sheep and goat.

Illegal Slaughterhouses

In theory, meat can only be sold after a government-appointed veterinarian certifies that the animal is healthy and fit for consumption, but what happens when slaughterhouses operate illegally? That’s when the risks increase dramatically. According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the quality of meat produced in these slaughterhouses is “unhygienic and carries high levels of microbial contamination”.

Veterinary expert, Dr Avinash Srivastava, says: “They may sell diseased animals or animals fed on antibiotics which may cause serious ill effects on the human body.”

In Thiruvananthapuram, a government official admitted: “We aren’t able to keep track of what all is being sold. They could be mixing meat with many things that we don’t usually consume.”

The authorities only clamp down on illegal slaughterhouses when the corporation receives complaints about the meat sold. Maneka Gandhi writes of an illegal buffalo slaughterhouse she visited in 2019. “I entered and we found ourselves knee deep in blood, thousands of freshly hacked bones, and flies. The place was like the worst part of hell that one can imagine. The factory was not a secret operation. It was a large well-built structure and could not have operated if the police were not part of the pay-off system. The local police commissioner was found to be part of this.”

It’s not just domestically consumed meat that comes from illegal slaughterhouses, the same is true of meat that is exported. (India exports meat, mostly buffalo, to around 60 countries.) A large portion of this meat comes through “meat laundering”. This system slaughters animals illegally at unlicensed locations, packages the meat for export, pays a small fine to the local body for flouting the rules and exports the meat as “regularised”.

Food Safety

With poor infrastructure, lack of hygiene and a thriving illegal slaughter system, it is no surprise that those who eat meat are taking a huge risk.

FSSI states: “Meat safety is a complex issue. There are many hazards and challenges associated with it. Hazards mainly include microbial pathogens, various chemical and physical contaminants, cross-contamination, improper transport and storage conditions, food additives, chemical and antibiotic residues, resistance to antibacterials and several others.”

And yet instead of clamping down on the unhygienic practices of a regulation-flouting industry, the onus is put onto consumers to take precautions. They are told not just to follow sensible precautionary food handling rules, but torealize their responsibility in contributing towards safety and hygiene”. They are told to question the butchers and meat sellers about their licenses, and to report any issues to the authorities.

Zoonoses (Diseases That Come From Animals)

There are many foodborne diseases associated with eating meat, wherever it comes from, including E coli, salmonella, MRSA, shigella, listeria, and campylobacter. Meat, seafood, unpasteurized milk and eggs are all common sources of these pathogens, which can induce diarrhea, vomiting, and fever, and in severe cases can be fatal.

And there are many more serious diseases that affect humans because we farm and eat animals. Historically, tuberculosis, measles, whooping cough, typhoid, leprosy all came from exploiting animals for their meat, skins and milk. And because we did not learn important lessons from the past, more recently we have also suffered bird flu, swine flu, AIDS, Ebola, SARS, MERS and Covid-19 – all for the same reasons.

Antibiotic Resistance

Intensive animal farms are disease factories. Animals are dosed with an array of drugs, just to keep them alive long enough to send them to slaughter. Even so, millions die in the sheds every year, unseen and uncared for.

Antibiotics truly are wonder drugs. Before they were discovered, just over 100 years ago, simple infections killed us, and yet we have abused these precious life-saving drugs by feeding them wholesale to factory farmed animals.

The drugs work at first but if just a few microbes have the genes to resist them, things can go badly wrong. The bacteria that survive multiply, and pass on their resistance to an ever-growing number of bacteria. Diseases emerge that cannot be controlled by antibiotics.

The recklessness of wasting antibiotics like this is obvious. Already, 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant diseases, and this will only get worse if we continue to farm animals as we do right now.

Meat Consumption Risks

While zoonotic diseases are a serious threat to human health, they are by no means the only threat associated with eating animals. The consumption of meat is also associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer.

The human population certainly pays a heavy price for its decision to eat meat.

Could Covid-19 Show Us A Better Way?

Slaughterhouses around the world have become centres for Covid-19 outbreaks because maintaining social distancing among workers is virtually impossible. Shutting them down undoubtedly saved lives. In lockdown, traders could not transport live animals and local mandis that supply animals were not operating. Demand for meat normally rises during Ramadan but this year, it didn’t. To many, this will seem like a disaster but it could be the catalyst for real and positive change.

We know that animals are sentient beings and that they suffer. We know that farming animals is a leading driver of environmental catastrophes such as climate breakdown, deforestation, pollution and species loss. Animal farming unleashes pandemics on the world that kill large numbers of people as well as causing chronic diseases in those who eat the products.

It is time we learned those lessons. It’s time to change.

We must campaign to improve standards and to close down illegal slaughterhouses but that alone is not enough. We can only truly protect animals, the planet and ourselves if we adopt a plant-based diet.

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