New legislation has been introduced to shut down New York City’s more than 80 live animal markets amid calls to urgently address the risk of animal-borne diseases in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
The New York state bill, sponsored by assembly member Linda B Rosenthal and state senator Luis Sepulveda, wants to immediately shutter state-licensed live animal markets and set up a taskforce of scientific and conservation experts to determine whether it is possible for them to operate safely.
Ms Rosenthal told The Independent that she was shocked to learn of the unsanitary conditions inside some of the markets after reviewing New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets reports.
She said: “The reports detail how there are no proper drainage systems in a lot of these markets so all the blood, faeces and body parts get swept out onto the sidewalk, or are in the killing rooms and places where people go to pick out an animal. Prominent doctors and scientists say that these kinds of markets need to be shut down to forestall a future virus and epidemic from occurring.”
The coronavirus likely originated at a market in Wuhan, China. Scientists suspect that the virus was transmitted from bats to humans via an intermediary host, perhaps a pangolin, although researchers are yet to arrive at a final conclusion.
There have been international calls to ban the trade in wild animals following the coronavirus outbreak. Free-roaming mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are reservoirs of unique pathogens that can spill over into humans and result in highly infectious diseases.
Zoonotic diseases account for 75 per cent of emerging infectious diseases, according to the National Institutes of Health.
The Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees smaller live animal facilities, says that live bird markets in New York are different than the wet markets of China and mainly deal in domestic poultry.
However, animal welfare campaigners and public health officials point out that risks of infectious disease still exist.
Dr Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, who supports the new bill, said: “Avoiding future pandemics like the Covid-19 global crisis requires a total ban on live markets, including 80 in New York City alone.
“Poultry flocks are breeding grounds for influenza A viruses, and live animal markets are the source of coronavirus.”
According to the Humane Society, two cases of low-pathogenic avian influenza were detected at a Brooklyn live animal slaughter market in 2012.
The coronavirus has led to more than 251,000 deaths and 3.6 million infections worldwide. As of today, New York has 25,720 deaths – both confirmed cases and those identified by public health officials as probable Covid-19 patients – and more than 329,000 total infections.
In New York, dozens of live animal markets are spread across the five boroughs and outlying areas, according to a map collated by animal rights activists Slaughter Free NYC.
Some storefront facilities are close to homes, schools and parks. A 2008 state law banned new slaughterhouses operating within 1,500ft of a residential building but a number were grandfathered into their areas.
Video taken by animal welfare organisations Theirturn.net and Slaughter Free NYC shows live chickens crammed into cages, cannibalising the carcasses of dead animals and being killed in seemingly unsanitary conditions.
The footage also shows the chickens being slaughtered and bled out on New York City streets, with feathers and mangled carcasses left in the gutters.
Workers can be seen handling animals without protective gloves, aprons and masks.
“With hundreds of caged and penned animals, many of whom are visibly sick, urinating and defecating on each other and the floor, New York’s wet markets are a breeding ground for infectious disease,” Donny Moss, a New York-based filmmaker who documented conditions in several of the city’s live animal markets with TheirTurn.net, told The Independent.
“If the state doesn’t shut these facilities down, then the next zoonotic disease pandemic could just as easily originate in densely-populated New York City as it could in China.”
Ducks, chickens, guinea hens, goats, and even cows and bulls are slaughtered and sold at New York live markets, the New York Daily News reported, where the preparation can have both religious and cultural significance.
In 2015, Slate reported on the black market trade in turtles in the city, which carry a risk of samonella bacteria.
Legislation introduced in 2016, relating to the licensing of establishments where animals or fowl are slaughtered, noted: “Businesses and residents complained regularly about the unbearable odour that emanated from the markets, odour that became virtually intolerable during the hot summer months.
“Often, markets failed to properly dispose of animal entrails, which created undesirable conditions in the streets and on the sidewalks of the city. Floating feathers clogged sewer drains and air conditioning/heating ducts and presented asthma, allergy and respiratory hazards.”
New York City has the largest number of live bird markets in the US, according to the Humane Society, with each maintaining an estimated 208,000 live birds each year, amounting to total sales of up to 17 million birds annually.
Several live animal markets in the city have poor inspection records, according to documents seen by The Independent.
Citations were issued for improper cleaning, allowing dried meat to build up on grinders and grimy food surfaces. Inspectors, who make unannounced visits along with four checks a year, cited one facility for an accumulation of faecal matter and feathers on the floor.
It is unclear what penalties live markets have faced for unsanitary conditions.
No inspections of markets have taken place for a number of weeks due to Covid-19 lockdown measures. The markets are considered essential services during the pandemic.
“The hundreds of pages of inspection reports document substandard conditions at almost every market in the city,” said Ms Rosenthal.
“The inspections don’t tell the story of a bad actor caught on a bad day, they tell the story of an industry that, as a result of poor regulation and oversight, has allowed conditions to degenerate to the point of becoming a public health risk.”
The Department of Agriculture and Markets said that essential businesses should be taking additional measures to achieve social distancing and following guidelines on hygiene and face masks.
“It is important to note that the CDC and the USDA have stated that there is no evidence that domestic animals can spread Covid-19 to humans. The greatest risk of transmission remains human-to-human contact,” the department said.
The new bill would not impact facilities overseen by the US Department of Agriculture, which mostly oversees larger facilities.
Last month, more than 60 bipartisan lawmakers urged the World Health Organisation and the United Nations to immediately ban live wildlife markets and the international trade of live wildlife around the world.
A letter sent by senators, including New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, urged for swift action to protect public health.
The New York state bill was supported by a host of animal rights organisations and public health officials, including Dr Aysha Akhtar, a neurologist and public health specialist, the Humane Society of New York, Peta, Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, NY Farm Animal Save, Slaughter Free NYC, The Animal Cruelty Exposure Fund and Jewish Veg.
Judie Mancuso, founder and president of Social Compassion in Legislation, which spearheads advocacy efforts, said: “Although Covid-19 originated in China, it could have come from anywhere. Our focus should be addressing the root of the problem. It is not the ‘where,’ but is the ‘what’. This virus could have originated in any country that exploits and commodifies animals including right here in the USA. Humanity as a whole owns this virus as we continually exploit animals and allow the threat to continue.”
Peta president Ingrid Newkirk said: “We need filthy meat markets like a swimmer needs a crocodile – for as long as we keep them open, we put ourselves in mortal danger. Peta applauds assembly member Rosenthal and state senator Sepulveda on their common sense decision to shut down these dangerous incubators.”
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