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Health

To stop bird flu, taxpayers pay millions to kill poultry. It is necessary?

The highly lethal form of avian influenza circulating around the world since 2021 has killed tens of millions of birds, forced U.S. poultry farmers to cull entire flocks and caused a brief but alarming spike in egg prices.

More recently, it has 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 proving especially costly for American taxpayers.

Last year, the Department of Agriculture paid poultry producers more than $500 million for the turkeys, chickens and laying hens they were forced to kill after the H5N1 flu strain was detected on their farms.

Officials say the compensation program is intended to encourage farms to quickly report outbreaks. This is because the government pays for birds culled, not those that die from the disease. Early notification, the agency says, helps limit the spread of the virus to nearby farms.

Culling is often done by increasing the heat in barns that house thousands of birds, a method that causes heat stroke and which many veterinarians and animal welfare organizations say results in unnecessary suffering.

Among the largest recipients of the agency’s bird flu compensation funds from 2022 through this year are Jennie-O Turkey Store, which received more than $88 million, and Tyson Foods, which was paid nearly $30 million. Dollars. Despite their losses, the two companies made billions of dollars in profits last year.

Overall, a large majority of government payments went to the country’s largest food companies, which is not entirely surprising given the dominance of American companies in meat and egg production.

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

The compensation tally was obtained by Our Honor, an animal welfare advocacy group, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the USDA. Advocacy organization Farm Forward collaborated on further analysis of the data.

The compensation breakdown has not been made public, 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, which last year included more than $30 billion in taxpayer money directed to the agricultural sector, much of it for crop insurance, commodity price support and disaster relief. .

But they say the bird flu-related payments are troubling for another reason: By compensating commercial farmers for their losses without strings attached, the federal government is encouraging poultry farmers to continue the same practices that increase the risk of contagion, increasing the need for future sacrifices and compensation.

“These payments are insane and dangerous,” said Andrew deCoriolis, executive director of Farm Forward. “Not only are we wasting taxpayer money on profitable companies for a problem they created, 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.

“There is compensation to help the farmer control and eradicate the virus, regardless of how the affected birds are raised,” he said in an email. The criticism, she added, was the work of “vegan extremist groups who are latching on to an issue to try to advance their agenda.”

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

Although modern agricultural practices have made animal protein much more affordable, leading to a near doubling of meat consumption over the past century, the industry’s reliance on so-called concentrated animal feeding operations has its downsides. The giant sheds that produce nearly 99 percent of the country’s eggs and meat generate huge amounts of animal waste that can degrade the environment, researchers say.

And infectious pathogens spread more easily within crowded structures.

“If you wanted to create the ideal environment to encourage pathogen mutation, factory farms would be pretty much the perfect environment,” said Gwendolen Reyes-Illg, a scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute who focuses on meat production.

Modern chicken, genetically homogeneous and designed for rapid growth, compounds these risks. Selective breeding has greatly reduced the time it takes to raise a barrel-chested broiler ready for the table, 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 to slaughter in half the time of traditional breeds. But the 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 weaker immune systems, because bless that fat little turkey’s heart, they’re morbidly obese,” said Reese, 75, who pasture-raises rare heritage breeds. “He is the equivalent of an 11-year-old boy who weighs 400 pounds.”

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been circulating since 1996, but the virus had evolved to become even more lethal when it emerged in North America in late 2021. It led to the culling of nearly 60 million farmed birds in the United States, and downed countless wild animals and a host of mammals, from skunks to sea lions. Last week, federal authorities first identified the virus 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, mainly among those who work with live poultry, and authorities say the risks to people remain low.

The virus is extremely contagious among birds and spreads through nasal secretions, saliva and feces, making it difficult to contain. Migratory waterfowl are the largest source of infection, even though many wild ducks show no signs of illness. The virus can reach barns through dust particles or on the soles of farmers’ boots.

While infections in North America have been up and down over the past three years, the overall number has declined as of 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 stopped production at its Texas facility and culled more than 1.6 million birds after detecting avian influenza.

Federal officials have been debating whether to vaccinate commercial flocks, but the move has divided the industry, in part because it could lead to trade restrictions damaging to 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 been urging the White House to embrace a vaccination campaign.

The agency’s livestock compensation 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 cull their herds by shutting off a barn’s ventilation system and pumping in hot air, a method that can take hours. Chickens and turkeys that survive are usually killed by a twist of the neck.

Crystal Heath, a veterinarian and co-founder of Our Honor, said the American Veterinary Medical Association, in partnership with the agriculture department, recommended that ventilation shutdown be used only in “limited circumstances.” She added that the vast majority of farms depended on it because the process was cheap and easy to do.

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

Thousands of veterinarians have signed a petition urging the association to reclassify vent shut-off as “not recommended,” saying other methods using carbon dioxide or nitrogen are much more humane, even if more expensive. From the start of the outbreak through December 2023, ventilation shutdown was used to slaughter 66 million chickens and turkeys, or about 80 percent of all slaughtered, according to analysis of federal data by the Animal Welfare Institute. , which obtained the data through a Freedom program. Information Law Request.

Last summer, the institute filed a petition asking the agriculture department to require farms to develop more humane depopulation plans as a condition of receiving compensation. The agency has not yet responded to the request.

Tyson and Jennie-O, the top recipients of federal offsets, have used vent shutoff, 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 their course, question whether killing all the birds on an affected farm is even the right approach. When H5N1 arrived at Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary in California in February 2023, killing three birds, farm operators prepared for a state-mandated cull. Instead, California agriculture officials, citing a recently created exemption for farms that do not produce food, said they would spare the birds as long as strict quarantine measures were implemented for 120 days.

Over the next few weeks, the virus claimed 26 of the farm’s 160 chickens, ducks and turkeys, but the rest survived, even those who appeared visibly ill, according to Christine Morrissey, the sanctuary’s executive director.

He said experience suggested mass sacrifices might be unnecessary. “More research and efforts need to be done to find other ways to respond to this virus,” Ms. Morrissey said, “because depopulation is horrible and doesn’t solve the problem at hand.”

With the northward migration in full swing, poultry farmers like Caleb Barron are holding their breath. Barron, an organic farmer from California, said there was a lot he could do to protect the livestock at Fogline Farm since the birds spent most of their lives outdoors.

So far, the birds remain unharmed. Maybe it’s because Barron raises a hardier breed of chicken, or maybe it’s because his birds have a relatively good life, including high-quality food and little stress.

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