Bird Flu Outbreak Sweeps Across Factory Farms

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Photo by Amy Mayer/
Cramped turkeys like these were among the first to die in a 50-million bird kill-off due to avian flu. Hundreds of workers, and even National Guard members, were deployed to kill the birds en masse and assist with sanitation, but few photos exist, and we were refused permission to print those we could find.

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.

  • Published on Sep 10, 2015
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