Year of the Bird-flu

I decided to bring my chapter on the transformation of farms into agribusiness all the way to the present, and conclude with this:

2015 will be remembered by many American farmers as the year of the Avian Influenza. According to poultry industry sources, bird flu swept through the Midwest in the Spring of 2015 in the worst epidemic ever experienced. At least 223 outbreaks were recorded, causing the destruction of tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

By late spring, the epidemic was national news. The
New York Times reported on an Iowa farm that was being forced to euthanize 5.5 million laying hens. The farm, located in an Iowa county that earns close to $2 billion annually from agriculture, had housed its layers in battery cages in 26 barns. Although the farmers had isolated the outbreak to just two of those barns, the article said, they were being forced to dispose of all their birds and thoroughly disinfect the entire operation.

While this was clearly frustrating for the farmers and tragic for all the chickens that had to be killed, there was more to the story than the
Times reported. The Iowa farm they described was part of the Center Fresh Group, a corporation owned by eight Iowa families that controls 17 percent of the nation's poultry and is the largest producer of eggs and shell products in America. Although the operators of the farm in the story were "forced" by the USDA to destroy their birds, Center Fresh, like all the other operations that disposed of birds suspected of being diseased, was compensated by the USDA for the birds they destroyed. Birds that died of the disease were not covered by the reimbursement program, which provided growers with a lot of incentive to cooperate with the government's biosecurity protocols.

The outbreaks were blamed by the poultry industry on migratory waterfowl, and the
USDA issued instructions on maintaining biosecurity in commercial poultry operations. The precautions they recommended included eliminating wetlands and seasonal ponds used by migrating flocks of ducks and geese, and eliminating food sources for wild birds. Neither the industry nor the government commented on how the H5N2 and H5N8 influenza viruses, known to have originated in Asian commercial poultry, migrated to the Americas and infected migrating ducks. The industry and government biosecurity experts also failed to explain how so many flocks of commercial chickens, raised in cages indoors, managed to come in contact with the droppings of wild waterfowl. The media cooperated, reprinting the press releases issued by industry sources and the USDA without asking any questions.


The poultry industry did notice that 90 percent of the flu outbreaks were in commercial flocks and only 10 percent in "backyard" flocks. But when the media mentioned this statistic, it was usually to emphasize the potential economic impact to growers forced to destroy million-bird flocks. No one asked why most backyard birds didn't get the flu, just as no one had asked why wild birds, claimed to be the vector spreading the infection, weren't sick.

Turkey producers were especially hard hit. The Hormel corporation, whose Jennie-O brand is the world leader in turkey products, warned that prices would rise steeply and their corporate profits would suffer. Biosecurity experts in the turkey industry claimed commercial flocks had caught the virus from wild turkeys. In Minnesota, the nation's leading turkey-producing state, newspapers carried stories of the nightmare virus and helpless farmers. Once again, wild turkeys, which regularly survive outdoors through Minnesota's harsh winters, didn't seem to be suffering. And no one could explain how barn-raised birds had caught the virus from their elusive woodland cousins.


When scientists at the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced there was no evidence linking wild birds to the flu outbreaks, the industry issued angry statements to the press,  discrediting the scientists and reiterating their wild-bird theories. In late April, Minnesota's Governor declared a state of emergency and visited a poultry company in southern Minnesota. A few miles from where the Governor commiserated with area residents, a commercial hatchery ships 45 million day-old turkey poults to Minnesota growers every year. But no one has examined any of the centralized supply chains of the commercial poultry industry as possible vectors for disease. Minnesota's leading newspaper, covering the Governor's visit, quoted a local woman worrying about the scary, mysterious disease threatening the region's economy. "What is the source?" she asked. "Are they ever going to find the source?"