A tasty solution to avoiding future pandemics

Proveg International’s newly published Food and Pandemics Report looks at the history of pandemics to help prevent outbreaks in the future.

Could your next juicy cheeseburger be part of a global strategy to reduce the risk of future pandemics? Findings from the report, together with advances in food technology, suggest it could be.

Beyond Burger
The Beyond Meat Burger is a plant-based ‘beef’ burger, that tastes and feels so similar to meat that consumers would not be able to tell it apart from the real thing

Reducing the risk of a pandemic

For many South Africans, the COVID-19 origin story involves foreigners, eating foods we wouldn’t eat, from markets we don’t frequent. The foreign and exotic nature of this narrative leads us to believe that there’s nothing we can do as individuals to reduce the risk of another pandemic. The report which shows similar findings to those recently published by WWF, the University of Cambridge, and the UN Environment Programme, paints a very different picture to this narrative. Take H1N1 Swine Flu, which killed between 151 700 and 575 400 worldwide during its 2009 pandemic, or Avian Influenza like H5N1, more commonly known as Bird Flu. These pandemics started with a jump from pigs and chicken to humans. Many South Africans eat pork, and most definitely eat chicken.

Pandemics and our food system

The report looks at the relationship between pandemics and our food system, and shows that about 75 % of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonoses. In other words, three out of four new communicable diseases originated in, and have been transmitted to us by wild or farmed animals. There is a growing consensus among NGOs, academic institutions, and the scientific community that the global food system needs to change if we are to prevent future pandemics. Although that sounds like an enormous task, the good is that as consumers we are able to influence the food system through our purchasing decisions.

While ProVeg works on part two of their report, which will outline strategies to change the global food system, it seems very clear that one thing consumers can do to help is to reduce the demand for animal products by eating less meat, eggs and dairy.

Reducing future pandemics is not the only benefit from cutting back on these options. The report also looks briefly at the link between eating animal products and lifestyle diseases like heart disease and type two diabetes, other food-borne diseases like Salmonellosis, and antimicrobial resistance. The impact of animal agriculture on climate change and environmental degradation is also included. Pandemics, health and the environment are three very compelling reasons that researchers are giving us to cut back on meat, eggs and dairy – and together they make such a strong case that we might forget that there are also the ethical questions to answer, especially when it comes to factory farming – where most of South Africa’s animal products come from.

Imagine an SA without braai

We are a meat loving country, so for many South Africans this solution isn’t just something we are likely to oppose because we don’t want to give up some of our favourite foods, but also because it seems to be a threat to important cultures and traditions. Can we even imagine a South Africa without the braai or shisa nyama?

The ProVeg report might leave you thinking that there are only two choices; be part of the solution, and make some big culinary – and potentially social – sacrifices, or keep eating as you always have and just not worry too much about future pandemics, health or the environment.

This is where we turn back to that juicy cheeseburger; the rapidly growing movement of people who want to be a part of the solution by cutting back on animal products and who still want to eat meat, eggs and cheese has inspired the food industry to create products that realistically mimic the taste and texture of your favourite burgers, sausages, chicken, cheese etc., without using animal ingredients at all.

In the past these products generally only catered for vegans and vegetarians who seemed content to put up with veggie burgers, or replacements that only vaguely resembled meat. Today the market for replacement products is dominated by ‘flexitarians’ – those people who are cutting back, but not fully ditching animal products – and vegans and vegetarians who still want the culinary experiences they grew up with.

Zoonoses inforgraphic
The report looks at the relationship between pandemics and our food system, and shows that about 75 % of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonoses

Similar to meat

This demand for tasty, realistic alternatives led companies in this market to refine their recipes, and new entrants to the market have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into research and development. The result is products like the Beyond Meat Burger; a plant-based ‘beef’ burger, that tastes and feels so similar to meat that consumers would not be able to tell it apart from the real thing. Locally we have our own proudly South African company that is at the forefront of this movement; the Fry Family Food Co., beer known as Fry’s. They sell some of the best meat-replacement products on the market, including their world leading Chicken-Style Nuggets and Burgers.

Good alternatives for beef, chicken, cheese, milk, yogurt and many other animal products can be found in retailers around the country. The Beyond Meat burger is available at Woolworths, and Fry’s products can be found in almost all major retailers. And restaurants are getting involved too, with even family favourites like Steers and Spur adding multiple plant-based alternative options to their menus.

Very few of us would have even imagined that 2020 would see us living through the biggest ever global lock down; most of us have had to change the way we think about a few things we’ve taken for granted for a long me. Maybe what we eat should be added to that list of changes; or at least we could give some of these new options a try – maybe for your next braai; we might be surprised at how tasty a solution to preventing the next global pandemic might be.



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