Avian influenza, or “bird flu,” returned to the United States in March, two years after the disease was responsible for the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history, with the deaths of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys and $4-5 billion in economic losses experienced by the poultry industry. Thus far, the extent of the 2017 outbreak has been far more limited, affecting birds at approximately one dozen poultry operations in the South and upper Midwest. While no new detections have been reported in nearly two months, a comeback is possible this fall when wild birds begin their migration south.
Birds exposed to even mild strains of bird flu are typically ordered to be killed by federal and/or state agricultural officials. The most common methods used to “depopulate” flocks are carbon dioxide gas (for killing caged egg-laying hens) and water-based foam (for killing floor-reared chickens and turkeys). Both methods are known to be stressful to animals and can lead to a prolonged time until death.
Following the 2015 outbreak, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the use of an even more inhumane method—ventilation shutdown—where producers turn off the ventilation system to remove airflow and turn up the heat to 100-120 degrees Fahrenheit. The birds die from heat stress, after experiencing what is likely to be extreme suffering for up to three hours. This truly gruesome method of killing animals has not been sanctioned by any veterinary authority.
In January, the American Veterinary Medical Association released draft guidelines for the depopulation of animals that include ventilation shutdown. Because the USDA generally relies on the AVMA for guidance, it is likely these guidelines will determine the methods to be used to kill animals for future disease outbreaks. Not only do the guidelines allow the ventilation shutdown method to kill birds, they also permit live burial of birds and the use of ventilation shutdown for the killing of pigs.
Although it seems pretty obvious that ventilation shutdown and live burial would cause significant suffering, no research has been conducted to determine their actual impact on animal welfare. This alone should rule out their use. Moreover, these methods are not recognized by the depopulation guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health, the international authority on animal diseases.
All other veterinary authorities appear to have taken the position that these methods should be avoided under any circumstance. In fact, other than burning animals to death, it is difficult to imagine how the AVMA could have come up with anything worse.
Animal viruses, such as avian influenza, must be taken seriously. Even mild strains can have a catastrophic impact, as they have the ability to mutate into strains capable of killing not just animals, but humans, as well. The primary responsibility for national security and public health rests with government agencies, however, not the AVMA. If government agencies feel that killing animals by horrific methods is indicated under certain circumstances, then they have the authority to order it. Use of these methods shouldn’t be sanctioned in advance by a professional association representing individuals sworn to protect animals from suffering.
The AVMA is allowing the use of ventilation shutdown because the USDA has determined that increased depopulation capacity, when combined with other actions such as better carcass disposal and improved biosecurity, could result in lower producer losses and reduced indemnity costs for the federal government. And nothing is faster or cheaper than flipping a switch to turn off the animals’ air.
By proposing obviously inhumane killing methods, the AVMA is enabling the animal agriculture industry to act irresponsibly in the way it raises animals. The poultry industry is well aware that the need to depopulate flocks occurs periodically; yet, it continues to design and construct massive buildings that confine tens and even hundreds of thousands of birds without consideration of how the animals will be protected in emergency situations, or how they will be humanely killed, if that becomes necessary.
The factory-farming industry likes to scapegoat organic and higher-welfare farming by suggesting that allowing animals access to the outside leads to disease outbreaks. However, a connection between the two isn’t supported by the facts and, in reality, the opposite is more likely to be true. Research demonstrates that mutation of milder strains of bird flu into more virulent ones occurs more commonly in crowded, indoor poultry operations.
According to the USDA, in the 2015 outbreak, 10 times as many cases of bird flu were detected in commercial operations as in backyard flocks. And last month, officials in South Korea—where bird flu hit especially hard this year—announced the results of a data analysis showing that poultry operations housing more than 100,000 chickens were 548 times more likely to be affected by bird flu than those with fewer than 4,000 chickens.
If the AVMA sincerely believes it is permitting cruel methods of killing in order to protect human and animal health, then it should also feel compelled to actively seek less inhumane methods, and it should call out industrialized farming for raising animals in crowded, filthy conditions that facilitate the spread of disease. Otherwise, it gives the appearance of merely carrying water for the animal agriculture industry.
Send a message to the AVMA here.
Dena Jones is director of the farm animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI).