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.