Earlier this year, nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys were killed when another outbreak of bird flu swept across the country, showing us once more the profound flaws in our industrial food system.
Imagine you’re a young turkey being raised in an enormous, enclosed barn during a chilly Minnesota spring. You’re fed processed corn and soy products laced with synthetic vitamins. You never ingest a single mouthful of greens, nor any insects or worms — mainstays of your natural diet. You have radiant heaters instead of a mother, and artificial lights are your only sun. Conditions are crowded and filthy. Ammonia in the air makes breathing difficult. Suddenly, other turkeys around you are getting sick and dying. Despite the efforts of your keepers, a deadly virus has blown in.
Envisioning what comes next is difficult — a 15-state outbreak of a highly contagious form of bird flu sends government workers in hazmat suits hustling to use lethal gas or foams to kill entire barns full of poultry. They call it “depopulating” the exposed birds.
The first million to die were turkeys, which are highly susceptible to viruses carried in by migratory waterfowl in spring. These unfortunate turkeys were being raised by Jennie-O and other poultry companies in Minnesota, the northern limit of where wild turkeys can survive, and the virus hit months ahead of when natural turkey hatching might take place, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. A domino effect of infection began. The casualty numbers skyrocketed when strong winds, and possibly feed trucks, helped transport the virus to the egg factories of northwest Iowa, where 31 million laying hens and pullets eventually had to be put down in an attempt to prevent the illness from spreading into states farther south, where even more poultry is raised. This brought the tally to about 50 million total birds killed. This outbreak’s financial losses are estimated at $3.3 billion so far, including nearly $700 million in costs incurred by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to Harvest Public Media.
The industrial poultry system essentially raises birds in intensive-care hospital conditions. Producers’ detailed “biosecurity” plan attempts to keep viruses and other germs out of their giant barns. This year, experts expressed surprise when USDA data eventually suggested that persistent 25 mph winds were what helped spread the virus. Poultry barns, of course, aren’t windproof.
In addition to wind, sunlight plays a part in this equation, too. Mike Badger, executive director of the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, points out that sunlight kills the bird flu virus, but most industrially raised birds are given no access to sunlight.
“Pastured-poultry producers not only believe living outdoors is essential for poultry, but that it’s a fundamental building block for the health of a flock,” Badger says. “Scientists say that sunlight kills these viruses, so it stands to reason that birds that go outside are less likely to get sick.”
Another big difference between conventional and pastured poultry is the density of birds. Factory-farmed birds are allowed barely enough room to move, so germs spread rapidly from bird to bird. Their manure-filled, cramped conditions are a perfect recipe for viruses and bacteria to mutate into virulent strains.
As we go to press in August, the spring 2015 outbreak seems to have subsided. Bird flu outbreaks usually recede in summer but can reappear when temperatures drop, and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has announced that the federal government is preparing for a bird flu flare-up this fall that could be twice as bad as the catastrophe earlier this year. Meanwhile, most industrial chicken farmers are likely not resting easy these days.