Can Viruses in Meat Really Affect Humans? What You Need to Know
Can meat carry viruses? Many people have begun to ask this question and to take a critical look at the issue of meat-borne diseases.
As the shift toward alternative proteins and plant-based diets continues, it’s important to look past hype, marketing, and social media influencers to see what the science says about meat viruses and how you can keep yourself and your family healthy.
How Viruses in Meat Affect Human Health
Unlike bacterial food-borne illnesses like E. coli, viruses have no cellular structure of their own. They require host cells to replicate and therefore don’t “grow” in or on meat the way bacteria can. Instead, animals act as carriers.
Humans may contract viruses by eating meat from infected animals, consuming contaminated water, or coming into contact with infected feces or blood. Infected individuals can also spread meat viruses to others. Some viruses spread in ways similar to the flu; others require contact with the feces or blood of an infected person.
Meat Consumption and Viruses: The Animal-Human Connection
Viruses in meat have been linked to several past outbreaks of human illness; others are still being studied for their potential short- and long-term effects.
Strains of both swine flu (H1N1) and bird flu (H5N1 and H7N9) can cause respiratory infections in humans. Symptoms are similar to those of regular flu, although some cases can be severe.
Bird flu — naturally found in populations of aquatic birds — can infect domesticated poultry birds. The H5N1 strain first came to the public’s attention in 1997 when an outbreak surfaced in Chinese poultry farms, and infections are still occuring in flocks around the world. The virus has a 60% mortality rate but doesn’t spread easily between humans.
Swine flu likely originated in a factory farm in North Carolina and infected almost 61 million people between 2009 and 2010. Almost 12,500 people in the US died, and the CDC places the global death toll somewhere between 151,700 and 575,400 people. However, now that immunity is more common, the virus is considered a normal seasonal flu strain.
Shellfish and pork have been cited as potential carriers of hepatitis A and hepatitis E, respectively. Both infections affect the liver and can cause fever, joint pain, abdominal pain, jaundice, and digestive distress.
Eating a plant-based diet largely eliminates the risk of contracting viruses commonly found in meat.
Infected feces is the most common way for hepatitis to spread, although the infection can also be contracted from drinking contaminated water or eating shellfish harvested from a contaminated water source. Most people recover from the illness, but hepatitis E may become chronic in rare cases.
Infections from viruses and other pathogens may be at the root of up to 20% of human cancer cases. Although many of these connections are still being investigated, research has uncovered several links:
- As many as 37% of breast cancer cases in the US may be related to bovine leukemia virus exposure. The virus is present in 100% of the country’s large factory farm dairy operations.
- Bovine polyomavirus may play a role in the development of colon, lung, and breast cancer.
- Viruses in chicken have been associated with human cancers and may also influence atherosclerotic plaque formation.
Unlike bacterial pathogens, viruses in meat may survive cooking; rare meat poses a higher risk. Some viruses can also be found in eggs and milk in addition to muscle and organ meats.
Viruses and Plant-Based Diets
What about plant viruses? Some animals and insects do show evidence of antibodies to viral pathogens that attack and infect plants, and traces of the viruses can appear in human feces. However, only one plant virus — the pepper mild mottle virus, or PMMoV — was ever suspected of causing symptoms in people.To truly cause an infection, a plant virus would have to enter human cells to replicate.
You can contract some meat viruses, such as hepatitis A, from eating unwashed produce that came into contact with contaminated water or feces. Washing produce before consumption minimizes this risk.
How to Avoid Viruses from Meat
Eating a plant-based diet largely eliminates the risk of contracting viruses commonly found in meat. However, if you’re still making the transition or you live in a household with others who eat animal products, consider taking these precautions:
- Maintain separate preparation areas and utensils for meat and produce.
- Clean meat preparation areas thoroughly with a diluted bleach solution.
- Wear disposable gloves when touching any surface or utensil used for meat.
To prevent illness from contaminated produce:
- Inspect food for mold and rotten spots before purchasing.
- Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables prior to consumption.
Exercising common sense at the grocery store and in the kitchen should protect you from the majority of food-borne viruses. Choose whole, unprocessed plant foods as often as possible to reduce the possibility of virus exposure.
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