HSUS sues USDA over policies that risk future pandemics

By on April 8, 2020 with 2 Comments

Today the Humane Society of the United States filed a federal lawsuit challenging the response plan for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (or “bird flu”) of the United States Department of Agriculture. The response plan, produced by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, is shortsighted and dangerous.

For years, the HSUS has been warning USDA and the factory farm industry of the imminent threat of a pandemic resulting from zoonotic pathogens — diseases transmitted from animals to humans—that are closely associated with the intensive confinement of animals.

Influenza spreads within factory farms directly from animal to animal or by way of workers, flies, manure, and rodents. When thousands of animals are tightly confined it creates a recipe for disaster, in which potential pathogens can recombine and generate viral forms with the ability to infect people.

While the COVID-19 pandemic likely resulted from a wildlife market and the wildlife trade, prior deadly and costly outbreaks of pathogenic illness in the global food chain have been linked to farm animals. For instance, a 2003 bird flu outbreak came from infected chickens and the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak that sickened nearly 60 million people was linked to U.S. pig farms.

Five years ago, seeing the threat of potential disease outbreaks based on farm animal to human transmission, we asked APHIS to consider how its Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza control plan could help prevent the development and spread of bird flu. The HSUS suggested a plan that would incentivize producers to give animals room to move naturally, instead of the industrialized norm which often involves cramming birds into cages. Giving animals more space would reduce the risk of mutation and spread of disease. But APHIS went in another direction, with a plan that essentially subsidizes the extreme confinement of animals that causes the threat in the first place.

During a typical outbreak of zoonotic disease, APHIS’s response is often to slowly suffocate and cook millions of conscious birds to death through a method called ventilation shutdown. This involves shutting down a facility’s entire ventilation system causing carbon dioxide and heat to build up. The animals’ bodies are piled up and burned or dumped together. This entire process releases fluids and gases, like dioxin—a toxin linked to cancer, liver and immune system damage, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

Under the APHIS plan, the companies that stuffed these animals in cages or warehouses are to be reimbursed with taxpayer dollars and allowed to continue cruelly confining birds so that this wasteful, cruel and self-defeating cycle can begin again. Between 2014 and 2016 more than 50 million birds (egg laying hens, chickens raised for meat, turkeys and others) were killed across more than a dozen states in an effort to contain a bird flu outbreak. This did as much as three billion dollars’ worth of damage to the U.S. economy, and APHIS spent over $900 million cleaning up the mess it describes as the most serious animal health disease incident in history.

An outbreak response plan that indemnifies factory farms in this way isn’t just cruel; it represents a threat to human health. As our lawsuit makes clear, the USDA’s approach foolishly props up practices that threaten not just Americans but countless others around the globe with more frequent and more life-threatening pandemics.

We advise a better direction. Our federal government should require producers to agree to end their intensive confinement of chickens in cages and shift to cage-free systems that give the birds dramatically more space and ability to engage in healthy, natural behaviors. Preventing outbreaks is far cheaper than trying to contain them, and investments in prevention pay off a whole lot more than the perpetuation of a failed and dangerous paradigm like intensive confinement. Bringing an end to government response plans that reimburse the perpetrators of such reckless practices would be a good start.

The lawsuit was prepared and filed by pro bono counsel at the law firm Shearman & Sterling, LLP and the HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation team.

Categories
Farm Animals, Public Policy (Legal/Legislative)

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2 Comments

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  1. Mo Markham says:

    There are a few problems with this …

    Giving farmed animals adequate space to live in would mean that that we would need another planet, since there are about 70 billion of them that we raised each year to kill, and since about half of the arable land on the planet is taken up for grazing and for growing food to feed farmed animals.

    The other problem is that the so-called Spanish flu killed fifty to a hundred million people across the world in 1918 and 1919. Scientists have now studied it and believe that it originated in an animal farm in Kansas. Since animals weren’t as packed in back then as they are now, that would suggest that simply giving them more room isn’t the answer.

    I think what you really need to ask for is an end to animal agriculture , and eating animals … remembering that even if this current virus did start in a wild animal market, those wild animals are farmed in China.

    If you add in the fact that the United Nations says that animal agriculture creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the world’s transportation, I think we have the answer .

    Making them more comfortable before we kill them and eat them isn’t going to work for them and it isn’t going to work for us and it isn’t going to.solve the pandemic problem and it isn’t going to work for the planet.

  2. Mildred Sanders says:

    You are mistaken in attributing 2009 swine flu outbreak to the US. It originated in Mexico: See, for example, Pathogens Journal, Dec. 6, 2016.
    We need to be historically accurate in these important discussions. These zoonotic flu’s are easily transmissible from country to country. But knowing where they originate is important for control. It was only established in an important 2013 book by Canadian historian Mark Humphries that the 2018 “Spanish” flu originated in China. So did the 1957 Asian pandemic, the 1968 Hong Kong flu (if one counts HK as “China”) and the 2004 SARS virus, as well as the current pandemic. Certainly US industrial agriculture can foster Avian and Swine flu, but they are more quickly dealt with in democratic countries with strong regulatory systems, and are less dangerous to humans than the flu’s that jump from wild animals (like civet cats in 2004, and bats in the current pandemic). We need to work to limit the wildlife trade, in which China is by far the major player, if we are to avoid the most destructive and fatal zoonotic viral pandemics. China also has a totalitarian government and can not be counted on to reveal vital information, or allow scientists to speak freely.
    The Humane Society should be taking a much stronger position here.

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