USDA Proposes Horrifying Bird-Flu Control

The USDA’s answer to stopping the next bird flu outbreak—and the methods already in place—will have you second-guessing industrial poultry farming … again.

by Dani Yokhna

Dealing with bird flu in industrial poultry operations.
Compassion In World Farming/Flickr

Avian influenza brought a death toll of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys on farms in 21 states earlier this year as it marched its way south and east from Oregon—it’s not a disease to screw around with. Fortunately, the poultry industry caught a break this summer with hot weather quashing the virus, but now that cooler weather is back, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service officials are expecting the bird flu to make a comeback in a big way. They are planning, in fact, for a worst-case scenario of 500 or more commercial poultry operations to be affected across the U.S. (To give you an idea of what that entails, there were 211 commercial farms and 21 backyard flocks involved in the spring outbreak.)

I started out writing this blog entry to tell you about all of the things that APHIS is doing to curb this pending animal-health disaster. Really, though, what I want to tell you about is how APHIS plans to contain the disease when it’s found.

Chicken Death

If the worst-case bird flu outbreak comes to fruition, think for a moment about all of the millions of live birds that will need to be euthanized and then disposed of. APHIS thinks it has the answer, and it’s not a good one. The agency is saying one way it sees fit to kill infected birds within 24 hours of detecting the disease—the best chance they have for containing avian influenza and preventing it from spreading—is to shut down the ventilation systems in the barn. Essentially, they’re going to bake the chickens alive.

This thought turns my stomach. It’s not that chickens have to die. I realize this is a fact of food production, and I have quickly euthanized more than one chicken when its suffering had exceeded what we felt was necessary. But I haven’t used any of the methods proposed here.

In a policy statement APHIS issued last week, it says: “Carbon dioxide (CO2) and water-based foam have been the most commonly implemented methods during the current outbreak. However, at the height of outbreak detections, these methods were insufficient for rapid depopulation and disposal, and could not be executed quickly enough to halt the production of HPAI virus in infected flocks. … While CO2 and water-based foam will continue to be the primary methods first considered in a response, alternative methods will be immediately considered if these primary methods will not achieve depopulation of infected flocks (based on the presumptive positive result) within 24 hours. Ventilation shutdown (VSD) is an adjunct method that will be considered by State and APHIS officials for depopulation of infected poultry based on the defined policy. However, VSD should be used only after a full consideration of the epidemiologic threat posed concludes that no other method can achieve a sufficiently timely measure of assurance that the virus will not spread.”

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So they know it’s a terrible thing that they’re proposing, and it’s possible that they won’t have to turn to this means of what amounts to torture. I didn’t know anything about the water-based foam or carbon-dioxide extermination methods before writing this, so I looked them up:

  • The water-based foam means of eliminating a poultry flock is approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association as a means of depopulation, defined as “methods by which large numbers of animals must be destroyed quickly and efficiently with as much consideration given to the welfare of the animals as practicable, but where the circumstances and tasks facing those doing the depopulation are understood to be extenuating.” Note that the organization recognizes this is not euthanasia, which is “transitioning an animal to death in a manner that is as painless and stress-free as possible.”
  • Using carbon dioxide is, just like it sounds, pumping in CO2 to suffocate the birds in sealed chambers. I couldn’t find an AVMA statement on the humaneness of this method.

This World Organization for Animal Health document has a disturbingly interesting exploration of different mass-killing methods, and the CNBC clip talks about one of the egg-layer factory farms involved in the avian influenza outbreak earlier this year. I have officially spent too much time reading about mass killings of chickens.

Another Option

If this heading (“Another Option”) sounds hopeful, it shouldn’t. Think about thousands or tens of thousands of chickens in a warehouse on an industrial egg-layer farm during a bird flu outbreak. They’re sick. They’re causing a major health threat to birds of all kinds nearby (and we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the next avian influenza outbreak could be a zoonotic strain, causing a human-health emergency, as well). And they need to be exterminated to contain the disease. The only other option is to not put poultry in these circumstances to begin with. As far as our current food system is concerned, this is not an option at all. That makes me almost as sick to my stomach as APHIS’s idea of baking these birds to death.

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