By Umberto Bacchi
ROME, Feb 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A boom in demand for meat in Asia threatens to fuel the spread of disease from animals to humans, as boosting production often takes priority over food safety, a United Nations agency warned.
Outbreaks of infectious diseases like the deadly SARS virus and bird flu will become more common unless governments step up regulation, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
"We will see more diseases and we will see more epidemics, starting tomorrow," said FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth.
In East Asia, economic growth and higher incomes have boosted appetites for meat. Consumption of meat products per person has ballooned five-fold over the last half century, to 50 kg per person in 2015, the FAO says.
Livestock markets and farms, particularly of pigs and chickens, have sprawled, making it hard for authorities to keep up with vaccinations and inspections, Lubroth said.
Global population growth, which is set to further increase demand, and selective breeding practices have heightened the problem, creating the conditions for a "disease perfect storm".
"All these (livestock) animals are genetically very similar... so if one is susceptible (to a disease) all of them are," Lubroth told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Three-quarters of emerging infectious diseases in recent years have spread to humans from animals or animal products, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In an increasingly interconnected world it is easier for them to cross borders, Lubroth said.
The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which emerged in southern China in late 2002, spread rapidly from south China to other cities and countries in 2003. Over 8,000 people were infected and 775 died.
Since last year, authorities in Asia and Europe have been dealing with different strains of bird flu, leading to mass culling of poultry, and some human deaths in China.
Lubroth urged governments to put food safety higher up the agenda and invest in prevention to avoid more epidemics.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)