Avian Influenza Just One Marker of Sickness in Industrial Agriculture

By on May 14, 2015 with 7 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Government officials and farmers are engaging in the grim task of mass executing domesticated fowl in the Midwest, as a result of the tragic outbreak of avian influenza that has savaged agricultural operations, mainly industrial turkey and laying hen operations in Minnesota and Iowa. They’ve killed nearly 30 million birds in these states, with almost all of that death and destruction happening in the last month. In some cases the birds have been killed en masse, covered with a fire-fighting foam designed to suffocate the birds.

The outbreak couldn’t have happened in a worse place. Minnesota is the largest turkey-producing state, and thus far the toll there is more than four million birds. In neighboring Iowa, by far the biggest egg-producing state, the toll is about 25 million birds – nearly half of the state’s hen population of 60 million. There are no signs of the influenza abating and it has now spread to Indiana, the third-largest egg-producing state.

There’s a lot of debate about whether highly industrialized farms incubate the disease. No matter your view of that issue, there’s no question that when avian influenza hits a major battery cage facility, or a huge indoor turkey operation, it spreads fast between stressed birds in extreme confinement. And when the flu hits, factory farms kill all their birds, if the flu doesn’t handle the job first.

These poor creatures, living in crammed quarters and suffering every day, are so vulnerable inside these buildings. If just one bird gets sick, the order is given to kill them all.

Earlier this year, we had the exciting circumstance of Proposition 2 – the California ballot measure that mandates all hens have enough room to flap their wings – taking effect. Opponents of Prop 2 responded with the-sky-is-falling rhetoric, claiming it would double egg prices and leave supermarket shelves empty of eggs, even though the voter-approved initiative gave producers six years to comply. Well, there was a short-term spike in egg prices because of poor planning and naked opportunism by some producers and retailers, but prices quickly stabilized. There were no egg shortages in California – just lots of scare-mongering. Egg prices fluctuate normally anyway, based on feed and transportation costs. The biggest problem in California was not high prices or shortages, but the blatant defiance of the spirit of the law by some egg producers who decided to jerry-rig their cages rather than comply with the cage-free requirements of the law.

Now, more than four months after Prop 2 came into effect, we don’t hear these same voices lamenting the inevitable increases we’re already seeing in egg prices created by the mass depopulation of 25 million hens in the Midwest. The fact is, Iowa’s entire laying hen population could be wiped out.

For me, it’s yet another example of how our industrial system of food production is broken. We need more farms and more extensive systems, so the animals raised in agricultural settings are not so vulnerable because they are concentrated on just a few sites.

And we need food retailers to continue their movement toward better, more humane systems. This year, we’ve seen a cascade of companies – Aramark, Sodexo, Compass Group, Dunkin Donuts, and others – make pledges to source some or all of the eggs and egg products they use from cage-free sources. This is positive movement, and it reflects a growing consciousness that we need to create better, smarter living conditions for birds.

Birds on battery cages never have good days. They suffer continuously, crammed in small cages and then, after their productivity drops, they are manhandled and sent to spent-hens slaughter plants, an awful end as we documented in an undercover investigation at a facility in Butterfield, Minnesota earlier this year. Or, at least more recently, they die of disease, or are killed as a way to further contain the spread of avian influenza. In the latter case, taxpayers foot the bill, with the federal government compensating producers to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for the economic losses they’ve sustained.

The only logical path forward is for egg producers, when they start anew, to abandon battery cages and align their production systems with the wishes and now, indeed, the demands of consumers who want something better and more humane.

We must do better as a nation, and we must fix our broken system of food production.

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Farm Animals

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7 Comments

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  1. David Bernazani says:

    Broken is right. If ever there was a sign that something is very wrong with our factory farming system, killing millions of animals (in a horrible way) just to stop the spread of disease is so absurd I can only shake my head in disgust. If this doesn’t get some changes made, we will all know that the USDA is also broken.

  2. debbie says:

    The problem with blaming this outbreak on factory farming is that this novel flu would strike farms where chickens free range, outside every day. In fact that may be worse. I say may be worse because we have absolutely no idea how this is spreading. In fact, one doctor on PRO-med called this outbreak unprecedented because of that. It appears to be following the route of wild bird flyways, but it isn’t being found in wild birds,(the testing has revealed stats such as 1 case in 6,000 birds). If it were being spread by wild birds, free range flocks would be at more danger being more exposed to them.

    There has been speculation by veterinarians that this is spread by wind. There are problems with that. The flu has never been proven to spread that way, and if it is, that means this flu, for the first time ever, has mutated to do so. That also increases the risk of humans being able to catch it.

    There is also talk of it being spread by flies or rodents. Again, if it is being spread by rodents than it is adapting to mammals and that is another step toward human spread.

    It is even being mentioned that the grain is the culprit. Do factory farms and those with backyard flocks use the same grainery? I doubt it.

    This is not only hitting massive factory farms, but also farms that contract for the poultry industry. This means they are much, much smaller. Until we figure out what is spreading this flu, no one with any poultry is safe. Business aside, the longer this goes on, the more chances it has to adapt to mammals, including us.

    The fair season is coming up. Some states are proactively canceling poultry exhibits. The thoughts of pigs and chickens in the same place as this flu is a recipe for disaster. Pigs are the perfect vessel for mammal adaptation of this flu, not to mention this will spread it to unexposed farms. I encourage you to speak out, and ask other states to cancel poultry exhibits.

    • GW says:

      Factory farms are inherently cruel and breed disease and sickness. If they didn’t “producers” (i.e. animal abusers) wouldn’t be feeding them antibiotics. Suffocating to death millions of animals is another example of how depraved the machine has become.

  3. Joanne J says:

    and yet the Government hates back yard flocks and small farms…..:(

  4. Joanne J says:

    And yet the emphasis from the Government is on how terrible and disease -ridden backyard flocks and small farms are…..?????

  5. Ernest Martinson says:

    One way to fix the broken food production system is to rebel against government subsidies. Get government out of farming. Then during the upcoming Fourth of July, we could replace the asinine and hypocritical talk of freedom with a real functioning free market.
    In this free market, the federal government would not be compensating factory farmers for the economic losses they sustained. Nor would industrial agriculture be subsidized by the farm bill because there would be no farm bill. Nor would there be any bureaucrats administering subsidies because there would be no USDA.
    But is there enough residual bravery remaining in the land of the former free and the home of the wimps to cut the umbilical cord from Mother America (MA)?

  6. Alysa W. says:

    About 64 years ago my late husband was developing a process for vaporizing 100% Tri-Ethylene Glycol. It is a simple process and the vapor totally covers all surfaces and kills all bacteria and virus’s. He took some of the units to the poultry and egg producers in Petaluma, California. Normally there is a large loss of poultry due to illness which spreads rapidly in their congested cages and barns, but they were astounded at the results. Practically zero loss of the hens and the growth rate doubled as they did not have to fight infections.

    He also gave some units to laboratories and they no longer had contamination in their microscope slides after using them.

    They worked wonders in homes where disease spreads between occupants.
    The Tri-ethylene glycol is not dangerous to humans or animals and is easily vaporized by just heating it.

    I hope someone will relay this info to the poultry raisers.

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