Rethinking urban food systems in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
– Yuanzhihong Liu, TU Berlin

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen several outbreaks related to the urban food supply system. The first known outbreak took place in a big food market in Wuhan, China, in which wild meats were also traded. This also raised global criticism at wild meat trading and this kind of traditional food market. In June of this year another outbreak in China also happened in a large food wholesale market in Beijing. In Germany, where the pandemic was under control after the first wave thanks to the lockdown measures, a new outbreak struck the industrial, large-scale meat producer Tönnies in June 2020. Looking back into the history we can also find many connections between the food system and pandemics. For example, 39% of the earliest cases (from November 2002 to February 2003) in the 2003 SARS pandemic in Guangdong, south China were food industry workers1 and the virus was finally traced back to bats2. The atypical pneumonia pandemic in 2003 was later traced back to a farm in Holland whose free-range chickens were in contact with wild waterfowl in an adjacent canal3.

It seems that our modern urban food system or more precisely, the urban meat supply system, contributed to the spreading of virus. According to virologists, in 2010, among the 213 known human viruses, most have also known (60%) or presumed (8%) nonhuman vertebrate hosts, and 39% are transmitted between humans or between animals and humans by arthropod vectors, such as mosquitoes or ticks4. In order to figure out how the food systems contribute to the pandemic, we must understand how they work as an infrastructure and how they are connected with the urban fabric. In the industrial chicken production in America there is the so-called ‘vertical integration system’, which contains broiler breeding units, farms, slaughterhouses, processing plants, marketing and now accounts for 97% of USA broiler production5. This system can help us to establish a general description or model of the modern urban meat supply system. It usually includes seven components: breeding, raising, slaughtering (preliminary processing), further processing, distribution (including storage), acquisition and consumption6. The meat supply system in most western countries matches the model well, but the system in developing countries is always a mixture of traditional and industrial components. In both cases we need to understand how these systems are embedded in the urban space. In the following text I will try to explain why our modern urban meat supply system should be changed component by component.

At a first glance, breeding may seem unrelated to the spread of virus. On the contrary, breeding is the step in the process that protects us from viruses in wild animals. The type of food we eat today is the result of the accumulation of breeding processes throughout history. We have separated our food source animals from their wild relatives through cultivation and hybridization, in order to make them safer and more productive. And just like wild animals, native cultivated chickens in Asia are genetically different from those in Europe. This kind of regional genetic diversity is important to prevent the global spread of viruses. But with the development of modern breeding technology and the global livestock trade, the protection provided by regional diversity is increasingly broken, as shown by the 2003 atypical pneumonia pandemic in China, which was traced back to the infected chicken imported from Holland7. Another example is the sharp pork price increase in 2019 in China that caused by the African swine fever (ASF) outbreak which probably caused by the pan- Russian strain of African swine fever virus (ASFV)8.

Forms of raising (or rearing) animals relate to the conditions in which the animals are raised and kept, in terms of level of enclosure and animal density. For an industrial food system the forms of raising animals will be highly regulated with different levels of classifications. For example, in Germany there are four levels, from the narrow coop to free-range farms. The contribution of coop farming to the pandemic is obvious: crowded, narrow, closed spaces are a perfect condition for virus transmission. But is free-range really safer? This form reminds us of the traditional farmyard; we can regard it as a standardized farmyard raising. Firstly, due to their peripheral location, the unexpected contact between the free-range livestock and wild animals is much more frequent. Secondly, the traditional way of raising mixed species side by side is still common in the modern free-range farms, which allows the viruses to jump between species and possibly be transported to different regions. Despite their differences, the traditional mixed swine-and-poultry agriculture of Pearl River Delta in south China and the modern free-range farms of the highly rationalized, $2 billion-per-year Dutch poultry industry in Gelder Valley (Gelderland) both face common problems as shown by the origin of the 2002 SARS pandemic and the 2003 atypical pneumonia pandemic. Like South China many of the farms of Gelder Valley also keep pet flocks of ducks and swans. With its intimate juxtaposition of wetlands, wild birds, poultry, and high urban density, the Netherlands shares some of the distinctive features of the urban food system in the Pearl River Delta9.

Slaughtering means not only killing but also separating meats, bones and other byproducts. It is the first step of processing and remains hidden from the consumer in the modern meat industry. A large, highly centralized slaughterhouse away from population centers may be the easiest solution, as in the example of the German meat producer, Tönnies, whose slaughterhouse became the epicenter of a COVID-19 outbreak in June 2020. According to the investigation from hygiene professor Martin Exner the central air conditioning system and the working environment was to blame10. The workers must work in a sealed room with a low temperature in order to keep the meat fresh. The only way to provide air circulation under these conditions is with an air conditioning system, which acted as a distributor of virus, rendering the 1.5m safe distance between workers completely useless. A similar incident also occurred in July in the industrial seafood producing plant of Kaiyang World Seafood Co., Ltd. in Dalian, north China11.

In many traditional contexts, where a low temperature slaughtering environment is uncommon, this problem is avoided as the quality and freshness is instead ensured by visible slaughtering; this allays the consumers worry about getting meat from a sick animal. The traditional food market however, is shaped by a combination of mixed species slaughtering and acquisition, which has proved very dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic in China. The food market in Wuhan has been closed and the one in Beijing is now only accessible for wholesale transaction. Again, these two kinds of slaughtering are different; in the traditional market acquisition and slaughter are not separated. However, they both share a high density of people and centralized slaughtering in a relatively confined space, which has been one of the most important risk factors in the current COVID-19 pandemic. In rethinking the urban food system, the traditional food market should not be totally removed, as it also functions as an important trading platform for the local small- and medium-scale farms which contribute to the regional food supply. However the slaughtering function must be separated, which in turn, has ramifications for the overall food system.

The further processing of meat mainly contributes to prolonged conservation, which also ensures a longer distribution time and distance. Regional meat production usually cannot meet the demand of highly centralized cities and larger metropolitan areas. Berlin, the largest city in Germany, with a population of over 3.7 million, highly relies on meat imports, especially beef. Only 20% of the beef demand comes from regional slaughterhouses with further processed meat products mainly imported from western Germany12. In addition, our cities not only lack regional food suppliers, but also regional storage services, as urban land is usually too expensive for the local small- and medium-scale producer.

Distribution describes not only the process of transport and arrival of products to the access points for consumption; it also marks the connection between all the components in the system, from breeding to consumers on the household level and commercial consumption in restaurants. The cold chain meat and highly processed industrial meat products have traveled nationwide or even internationally, between foreign breeding sites to processing companies to import-warehouses and so on, which involve a lot of distribution departments and regions and is now suspected of having increased the range of infection and spread. Since July, more than 25 novel COVID-19 cases were detected in China in imported cold chain meat and seafood products or on their containers13. Although till now there isn’t any conclusive evidence that shows a direct relation between an infection and the “positive meat”, the distribution conditions of our urban food system, especially cold chain system, do provide the virus the possibility to survive without hosts for a relative longer time14.

The final component of the urban food system, acquisition and consumption includes not only the buying and eating behaviors, but also the consumer’s attitudes and food cultures, which actually forge our food system. The traditional market and illegal wild meat trade in China are strongly influenced by the food culture. The increasing demand for meat after the 2nd World War in western countries promoted the modernization of breeding technology and the centralized industrial production. The preference for fast food and processed meat instead of home cooking encouraged the development of industrial processing. Pricing and advertising are also widely used to influence and reforge our consumer habits

A positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has made planners and governments rethink the food supply as a complex spatial system instead of just an abstract economical one. This is a matter that concerns us all, as we are all involved, no matter where we are. The impact of this pandemic is strong enough, I think, to change our consumer attitudes and push for a restructuring not only in the public health system, and the pattern of our cities but also in the food system.

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7. Davis, Mike (2004). Monster at our Door. p. 84.
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9. Davis, Mike (2004). Monster at our Door. p. 84.
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12. Eckhardt, Timo et al. (2016). Erzeugung und Vermarktung “guter” Lebensmittel in Berlin- Brandenburg [online]. Berlin: NAHhaft e.V., p. 7-8. Available at: [Accessed Dec. 2016].
13. (2020). More than 25 imported COVID-19 cases detected via cold chain from eight countries since July. [online] Available at:
14. Han, Jie et al. (2020). Can the corona virus disease be transmitted from food? A review of evidence, risks, policies and knowledge gaps. Environmental Chemistry Letters [online]. 1-12. 1 Oct. 2020. Available at: [Accessed Dec. 2016].

Cover image: Practice of urban agriculture in the TU Berlin campus. Source: Author’s own.


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