Should producers be concerned about COVID-19 infecting livestock?

A tiger contracts COVID-19 in New York. How does this impact animal agriculture and our food supply?

Amanda Radke

April 6, 2020

5 Min Read
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COVID-19 continues to capture the attention of people around the world. And when the news headlines get to be too much, many folks are turning to popular TV shows to pass the time, including the popular “Tiger King” on Netflix.

If you haven’t seen the dramatic, weird series, it follows the stories of three different tiger owners and entrepreneurs. I enjoyed watching the series from the perspective of a livestock owner. The dichotomy between the different breeding and marketing strategies, layered with elements of crime, competition and animal rights extremism made for an interesting watch.

Notably, Joe Exotic, the wildly dynamic main character of the series, has contracted COVID-19 from his prison cell, where he is currently serving time.

In an ironic twist, just as the Netflix series is taking off and trending on social media, the world was shocked by the news that a tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York has come the first animal to test positive for the coronavirus.

The fact that Joe Exotic and Nadia the tiger both have coronavirus seems a little too on the nose for me, but regardless if this is a stretch of the truth or outright fear-induced propaganda, it does beg the question — should livestock producers be worried about their animals contracting COVID-19?

Related:Examining COVID-19’s effect on cattle markets

Last month, Russ Daly, South Dakota State University Extension professor and state public health veterinarian, addressed this topic, stating that cross-contamination from species to species hasn’t happened yet, but the situation merits a watchful eye for changes (like the infection of this tiger).

Daly writes, “In investigating where COVID-19 cases began, authorities have pointed the finger at a ‘wet market’ in one Chinese city. Wet markets are fascinating places where people can buy supplies, food, and live animals. The variety and number of live animals for sale can be astounding: chickens, pigeons, bats, rodents, snakes, and more. Throw in thousands of human shoppers and you have a unique opportunity for viruses to ‘try out’ infecting species besides their normal host. Sometimes – apparently in this case – it works.”

And experts, according to CNN, are divided on exactly how and where COVID-19 originated.

Per the CNN article, "Though the scientists discount conspiracy theories about bioweapons, on other questions they are divided. The experts are at odds over the once widely accepted theory that the virus originated at a wet market.

"Proponents believe the gory nature of these crowded markets packed with people and wild animals slated for slaughter make them the most likely culprit; the doubters cite a peer-reviewed study indicating that many of the first known patients had no direct exposure to the so-called wet market.


Another potentially explosive theory -- first posed by two Chinese researchers in early February -- holds that the origin traces back to an accident in one of two labs near the Wuhan market that work with bats.

While many questions about COVID-19 remain, moving forward government agencies are offering guidances. USDA urges an abundance of caution for humans infected with COVID-19 and their interactions with animals.

As this story of the infected tiger goes viral, both the UDSA and FDA have issued guidelines and recommendations regarding both pets and livestock and the risk for infections within animal populations.

According to an official statement from the USDA, “Anyone sick with COVID-19 should restrict contact with animals, out of an abundance of caution including pets, during their illness, just as they would with other people. Although there have not been reports of pets becoming sick with COVID-19 in the United States, it is still recommended that people sick with COVID-19 limit contact with animals until more information is known about the virus. If a sick person must care for a pet or be around animals, they should wash their hands before and after the interaction.”

The agency provides a Q&A section to address concerns about humans infecting animals and vice versa. For answers to common questions, click here.

Meanwhile, the FDA is assuring the general public that despite this animal infection, our food supply remains safe.

Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, writes, “Let me assure you first that the U.S. food supply remains safe for both people and animals. There is no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“Unlike foodborne gastrointestinal viruses like norovirus and hepatitis A that make people ill through contaminated food, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is a virus that causes respiratory illness. This virus is thought to spread mainly from person to person. Foodborne exposure to this virus is not known to be a route of transmission.

“For these reasons, we do not anticipate that food products would need to be recalled or withdrawn from the market for reasons related to the outbreak, even if a person who works in a human or animal food facility (e.g. a food packager) is confirmed to be positive for the COVID-19 virus.”

Read more from the FDA here.

I’ll continue to provide updates on this issue as details unfold, so keep checking back daily for new information.

By the way, today is the final day to vote in the "Peaceful Ranch Views" photo contest. If you could use a break from the stressful and ongoing COVID-19 reports, take some time to browse the finalist gallery and vote today! VOTE HERE.

The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of or Farm Progress.

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