When Man of La Muncha (who provided the title of this post) and I first started visiting our local farmer's market, we asked one of the egg and meat vendors why he didn't have more chickens for sale. The answer, he told us, had to do with bird flu, specifically the H5N1 subtype. He explained that when the government detects bird flu in the United States, any free-range flocks will be destroyed. As a result, he was keeping the size of his chicken flock small, so when the inevitable slaughter comes, he will lose as little livestock as possible.
We have read about the slaughter of poultry in countries where avian flu has been detected--in China, Romania and elsewhere. The killing of potentially infected animals is common when battling any virus, as happened in response to hoof and mouth disease in Britain, where over seven million sheep and cattle were culled in a successful effort to block the spread of the disease. The last outbreak of bird flu in the United States, 23 years ago, resulted in the slaughter of 17 million chickens.
After leaving the farmer's market, Man of La Muncha and I talked more about the issue of avian flu. Would the discovery of H5N1 mean that all poultry within a given area would need to be killed? If it were found in Arkansas, would all Tyson chickens be killed and disposed of? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no.According to the US government's avian flu site, poultry producers should restrict access to their birds (including game and migratory birds), keep cages clean, segregate new birds for at least 30 days, and avoid borrowing cages or other materials from neighbors or other bird owners. It is clear from the "helpful hints" provided that as long as chickens are kept caged in a big shed, far, far away from the nasty, horrible, dangerous outdoors. The USDA refers to this program as "Biosecurity for the Birds", and says that it provides smaller poultry producers and backyard farmers with, "practical, common-sense management practices to keep AI and other poultry diseases out of our commercial and backyard flocks." Unfortunately, the USDA is not alone in the assumption that a bird kept indoors in the company of thousands of its companions is a healthy, avian flu-free bird. Most countries that have seen outbreaks of H5N1 amongst their poultry flocks, including Austria, France, Germany, China, and Thailand, have instituted full or partial bans on outdoor poultry based on the assumption that H5N1 is being transferred to poultry farms by migratory birds.
GRAIN, an international non-governmental organization promoting "the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge", has released a study showing that the spread of the H5N1 subtype is a problem of factory farms, not free-range or backyard operations. According to their study, there is little evidence that migratory birds carry and transmit H5N1. The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) of the United Nations stated in November 2005 that, "(t)o date, extensive testing of clinically normal migratory birds in the infected countries has not produced any positive results for H5N1 so far." The report also points out that the pattern of H5N1 infections does not follow migratory bird movements; they do, however, track very closely with major road and rail routes, pointing to the large-scale movement of factory-raised poultry as the primary disease vector. Other sources, such as the LA Times, point out that the major outbreaks in most countries have come at factory farms, not small free-range farms, and suggest that the risk of a serious pandemic is the price we pay for cheap chicken and eggs.
While flu viruses are fairly common among birds, so much attention is focused on avian flu in an attempt to keep H5N1 from evolving into a strain that can be easily transmitted from human to human. So far, while hundreds of human cases have been reported, they have primarily been among poultry workers, where the disease has passed from poultry directly to a human. In cases where human to human transmission has been reported, it has been among family members living in very close quarters. If H5N1 were to mutate and become easily transmissable among humans, the result would likely be a flu pandemic.
The risk of a flu pandemic caused by the H5N1 virus is significant. In the 1918 flu pandemic, between 50 and 100 million people died, an estimated 2.5 - 5% of the world population at the time. Approximately 20% of the world's population was sickened. When animals (including humans) live in close quarters to one another, disease is spread more rapidly and more easily. What is surprising about the current global response to H5N1 is that it seems as though most governments have decided that what they know to be true for any other disease--namely, that diseases are spread and mutate where animals are kept in close quarters in an unhealthy environment--is somehow not true in the case of avian flu. That instead the cause must be migratory birds and free-range poultry. Unfortunately, once H5N1 (or a virus like it) makes easy leaps from human to human, we will all pay a price for demanding cheap animal products.