April 12, 2024

To combat bird flu, taxpayers pay millions to kill poultry. Is it necessary?

The highly deadly strain of bird flu that has been circulating around the world since 2021 has killed tens of millions of birds, forced poultry farmers in the United States to slaughter entire flocks and led to a brief but alarming spike in the price of eggs.

It recently infected dairy cows in several states and at least one person in Texas who had close contact with the animals, officials said this week.

It turns out that the outbreak is mainly costing American taxpayers a lot of money.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture paid poultry producers more than half a billion dollars for the turkeys, chickens and laying hens they had to kill after the H5N1 flu strain was discovered on their farms.

Officials say the compensation program aims to encourage farms to report outbreaks quickly. That’s because the government pays for birds killed by culling, not birds that die from the disease. According to the agency, early reporting helps limit the spread of the virus to nearby farms.

The cull is often done by turning up the heat in sheds that house thousands of birds, a method that causes heat stroke and which many veterinarians and animal welfare groups say leads to unnecessary suffering.

The largest recipients of bird flu compensation funds from 2022 to this year included Jennie-O Turkey Store, which received more than $88 million, and Tyson Foods, which received nearly $30 million. Despite their losses, the two companies reported billions of dollars in profits last year.

Overall, a large majority of government payments went to the nation’s largest food companies—not entirely surprising given corporate America’s dominance in meat and egg production.

More than 82 million farmed birds have been culled since February 2022, according to the agency’s website. For context, the U.S. poultry industry produces more than nine billion chickens and turkeys each year.

The total compensation was obtained by Our Honor, an animal welfare advocacy group, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA. The interest group Farm Forward contributed to the further analysis of the data.

The breakdown of the compensation has not been publicly released, but agency officials confirmed the accuracy of the figures.

To critics of large-scale commercial farming, the payments highlight a deeply flawed system of corporate subsidies that included more than $30 billion in taxpayer money going to the agricultural sector last year, much of it for crop insurance, commodity price support and disaster relief. .

But they say the bird flu payments are troubling for another reason: By compensating commercial farmers for their losses without obligation, the federal government is encouraging poultry farmers to continue the very practices that increase the risk of infection, eliminating the need for future culls and compensation.

“These payments are insane and dangerous,” said Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward. “Not only are we wasting taxpayers’ money on profit-making corporations for a problem they created, but we’re also not giving them any incentive to make changes.”

Ashley Peterson, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the National Chicken Council, a trade association, disputed the suggestion that the government payments reinforced problematic farming practices.

“Indemnities have been established to help the farmer control and eradicate the virus – regardless of how the affected birds are raised,” she said in an email. The criticism, she added, was the work of “vegan extremist groups latching onto an issue in an attempt to advance their agenda.”

The USDA defended the program, saying, “Early reporting allows us to more quickly stop the spread of the virus to nearby farms,” according to a statement.

While modern agricultural practices have made animal protein much more affordable, leading to a nearly doubling of meat consumption over the past century, the industry’s reliance on so-called concentrated animal feeding operations also comes with drawbacks. The giant barns that produce nearly 99 percent of the country’s eggs and meat produce vast amounts of animal waste that can harm the environment, according to researchers.

And contagious pathogens spread more easily within the crowded buildings.

“If you want to create the ideal environment for promoting the mutation of pathogens, industrial farms would be pretty much the perfect setup,” says Gwendolen Reyes-Illg, a scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute who focuses on meat production.

The modern chicken, genetically homogeneous and designed for rapid growth, increases these risks. Selective breeding has significantly reduced the time it takes to raise a barrel-breasted broiler, but the birds are more susceptible to infection and death, according to researchers. That may help explain why more than 90 percent of chickens infected with H5N1 die within 48 hours.

Frank Reese, a fourth-generation turkey farmer in Kansas, said the modern broad-breasted white turkey is ready for slaughter in half the time of traditional breeds. But rapid growth comes at a cost: The birds are prone to heart problems, high blood pressure and arthritic joints, among other health problems, he said.

“They have a weaker immune system, because bless that fat little turkey’s heart, they are morbidly obese,” said Mr. Reese, 75, who breeds rare heritage breeds. “It’s the equivalent of an 11-year-old child weighing 400 pounds.”

Highly pathogenic bird flu has been circulating since 1996, but the virus had evolved to become even more deadly by the time it emerged in North America in late 2021. It led to the culling of nearly 60 million farmed birds in the United States, as well as countless wild specimens and a host of mammals, from skunks to sea lions. Last week, federal authorities identified the virus for the first time in dairy cows in Kansas, Texas, Michigan, New Mexico and Idaho. The pathogen has also been implicated in a small number of human infections and deaths, especially among those who work with live poultry, and officials say the risks to humans remain low.

The virus is extremely contagious among birds and spreads through nasal secretions, saliva and feces, making it difficult to control. Migratory waterfowl are the biggest source of infections, even though many mallards show no signs of disease. The virus can enter barns via dust particles or the sole of a farmer’s boot.

While infections in North America have ebbed and flowed over the past three years, the overall number has fallen since 2022, according to the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

On Tuesday, the nation’s largest egg producer, Cal-Maine Foods, announced it had halted production at its Texas facility and culled more than 1.6 million birds after detecting bird flu.

Federal officials have debated whether to vaccinate commercial flocks, but the initiative has divided the industry, in part because it could lead to trade restrictions that would harm the country’s $6 billion poultry export sector.

Many scientists, fearing that the next pandemic could emerge from a human-adapted version of bird flu, have urged the White House to embrace a vaccination campaign.

The agency’s livestock damage program, part of a farm bill passed by Congress in 2018, pays farmers 75 percent of the value of animals lost to disease or natural disasters. Since 2022, the program has distributed more than $1 billion to affected farmers.

Critics say the program also promotes animal cruelty by allowing farmers to euthanize their flocks by turning off a stable’s ventilation system and pumping in hot air, a method that can take hours. Chickens and turkeys that survive are often sent away with a twist of the neck.

Crystal Heath, a veterinarian and co-founder of Our Honor, said the American Veterinary Medical Association, working with the Agriculture Department, recommended turning off ventilation only under “limited circumstances.” She added that a large majority of farms relied on it because the process was cheap and easy to implement.

“All you need is duct tape, tarp and a few rented space heaters,” said Dr. Heath. “But ventilation stop plus is especially terrible because it can take three to five hours for the birds to die.”

Thousands of vets have signed a petition urging the association to reclassify shutting down ventilation as “not recommended” and saying other methods using carbon dioxide or nitrogen are far more humane, even if they are more expensive. Since the outbreak began through December 2023, ventilation was shut down to cull 66 million chickens and turkeys, or about 80 percent of all deaths, according to analysis of federal data by the Animal Welfare Institute, which obtained the data through a Freedom request for information law.

Last summer, the institute filed a petition asking the Agriculture Department to require farms to come up with depopulation plans that are more humane as a condition of receiving compensation. The agency has not yet responded to the petition.

Tyson and Jennie-O, the largest recipients of federal compensation, have both used ventilation freezes, according to an analysis of federal data. Tyson declined to comment for this article and Hormel, owner of the Jennie-O brand, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some animal welfare advocates, pointing to recent outbreaks that have been allowed to run rampant, question whether killing every bird on an affected farm is the right approach. When H5N1 struck California’s Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in February 2023, killing three birds, the farm’s operators prepared for a state-mandated cull. Instead, California agriculture officials, citing a recently introduced exemption for farms that don’t produce food, said they would spare the birds as long as strict quarantine measures were in place for 120 days.

Over the next few weeks, the virus claimed 26 of the farm’s 160 chickens, ducks and turkeys, but the others survived, even those that appeared visibly ill, said Christine Morrissey, director of the shelter.

She said experience suggested mass culls may not be necessary. “More research and effort needs to be put into finding other ways to respond to this virus,” Ms. Morrissey said, “because depopulation is horrific and will not solve the problem.”

With the northward migration in full swing, poultry farmers like Caleb Barron are holding their breath. Mr Barron, an organic farmer in California, said there was not much he could do to protect the livestock at Fogline Farm as the birds spent most of their lives outdoors.

So far the birds remain unharmed. Maybe it’s because Mr. Barron raises a hardier breed of chicken, or maybe it’s because his birds live relatively good lives, with high-quality feed and low stress.

“Or maybe,” he said, “it’s just luck.”

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