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THE HAUL-OF-COSTS: Bird flu poses little threat to humans, but it’s been hell for 36 million chickens and turkeys

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Producers have some incentive to use VSD+ over other culling options. VSD+ generally requires less labor and supplies than most other methods. But it’s an inhumane practice.

KENNY TORRELLA: During one game in mid-April, a woman glued her hand to the court. A few days later, another woman chained herself to the goal post. The following week, a third woman, dressed as a referee, stormed the court before removing her jacket, exposing a shirt underneath that read “Glen Taylor roasts animals alive.” The protests, coordinated by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, were aimed at the Timberwolves’ majority owner Glen Taylor. Taylor also owns Rembrandt Enterprises, a large Iowa egg producer that has culled — meaning deliberately killed — 5.3 million of its hens in response to a widespread bird flu outbreak (and then laid off nearly all of its staff).

The virus, known as the Eurasian H5N1 avian influenza, began tearing through Europe, Asia, and Africa in late 2021 and is still raging, with Europe experiencing its worst bird flu outbreak on record. It was first detected in the US in January and has since spread to at least 32 states, resulting in the death of more than 36 million chickens and turkeys and triggering a spike in egg prices.

While the virus has a near 100 percent mortality rate among infected poultry — and can spread rapidly among birds, especially in packed industrial farming conditions — it’s currently believed to pose little threat to human beings. It only rarely spills over to people, and only to those who come into close contact with infected birds. Even when there are human infections, “the viruses are unable to efficiently transmit between humans,” notes Michelle Wille, a virus ecologist at the University of Sydney…

When chicken, turkey, and egg companies detect one infected bird, they kill the whole flock in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. And they’re doing so using a variety of excruciating methods, including spraying birds with a suffocating water-based foam or closing off barn vents to raise temperatures so the birds die by heat stroke, a practice called ventilation shutdown, which can take 1.5 to 3.75 hours to kill them…

“It’s horrendous,” says Craig Watts, a former large-scale chicken farmer and currently a director of field operations for the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, a nonprofit that advocates against industrial livestock operations. “I’ve been in those houses when the power went out and the generator didn’t kick on. In just a few minutes [the heat] is unbearable. … I can’t imagine that going on for hours and hours.”

According to the Storm Lake Times, a newspaper based near Rembrandt’s operation, the company used ventilation shutdown plus, or VSD+, meaning they also pumped heat into their barns to kill the birds faster, a practice being employed in several states. Rembrandt Enterprises did not respond to a request for comment.

The situation is horrific, but given the industrialized nature of the US poultry industry and its response to past bird flu outbreaks, animal advocates say it’s unsurprising. Nearly all birds raised for meat and eggs in the US are raised on factory farms, where producers raise hundreds of thousands to millions of animals per year. And most of these animals are genetically identical, which could make them more vulnerable to bird flu. Some experts say the intensification of animal farming — raising more animals closer together — could also be increasing the virulence and transmission rate of bird flu strains.

Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute says the 2014-2015 bird flu outbreak in the US, which led to the culling of more than 50 million animals — the largest cull in US history — didn’t prompt any real change in the industry. Instead, mega operations that raise millions of birds per year are continuing to be built across the country, from Oregon to Wisconsin and West Virginia to North Carolina as US chicken and egg consumption rises…

There are culling methods that kill the birds much quicker than ventilation shutdown, such as spraying them with nitrogen-filled foam or gassing them in small enclosures, a method some producers are using to address this outbreak… During the 2014-2015 bird flu outbreak, the most common culling method in the US entailed spraying turkeys with suffocating water-based foam; with this method, it takes seven to 15 minutes for the birds to die, and it causes significant pain. The second-most common method was gassing hens with carbon dioxide in small enclosures, which can render birds unconscious within 30 seconds.

But according to the USDA, deploying these methods was sometimes too slow to meet the need of depopulating infected flocks within 24 hours. So, at the end of 2015, fearing another wave of outbreaks, the USDA approved ventilation shutdown — closing off air vents so the temperature rises, which can take hours for the birds to die by heat stroke. The USDA now says ventilation shutdown alone, without added heat or CO2, should only be used as a last-resort measure…

Producers do have some incentive to use VSD+ over other culling options. To receive reimbursement for costs incurred during depopulation and disposal, they have to use a culling method permitted by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a nongovernmental trade group, and VSD+ generally requires less labor and supplies than most other methods. But it’s an inhumane practice.

In the AVMA’s culling guidelines for VSD+, the organization cites research conducted at North Carolina State University in 2016 meant to replicate and study ventilation shutdown. Researchers placed one chicken at a time in a small enclosure and pumped in heat, carbon dioxide, or both. Animal Outlook obtained footage from that experiment via a Freedom of Information… In the video, a bird appears to be gasping for air, unable to stand… showing signs of attempting to vocalize (the video has no audio). It took around 91 minutes for the birds to die of just ventilation shutdown, 53 minutes when heat was added, 11.5 minutes when carbon dioxide was added, and nine minutes when both heat and carbon dioxide were added…

A coalition of more than 1,500 veterinarians, appropriately called Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown, say the process is inhumane and are calling on the American Veterinary Medical Association to classify it as “not recommended” for culling. An investigator with Direct Action Everywhere — the group that’s been disrupting Minnesota Timberwolves games — says they entered a Rembrandt facility after depopulation and allegedly found some birds who had survived ventilation shutdown plus.

“On the floor and in the cages we found … upwards of 100 chickens [still alive],” the investigator, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, said. “If you [extrapolate that for] the parts of the facility we didn’t go into, maybe several hundred chickens were still stuck in cages or running around loose”…

Factory-farming animals is an inherently risky business. And when a system that crams tens of thousands of birds together is faced with a highly-transmissible, lethal virus, that system is largely defenseless. At best, industry can work to minimize harm, but only if it’s willing to pay increased costs. But the conditions on today’s meat and egg farms — and the approval and adoption of ventilation shutdown — demonstrate a drive toward efficiency, not welfare. SOURCE…

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