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2006/ January 2007
Politics and Poultry: How the U.S. Poultry Industry is Banking on
the Avian Flu Crisis By Christine Morrissey
Affixed to the perimeter barbed wire at virtually every poultry operation
across the country, the sign reads: “Stop: Keep Out—Biosecure
Area.” This placard is the lonesome guard of commercial flocks confined
beyond the industrial fencing. It represents the firm boundary between
the public and the inter-workings of the U.S. poultry industry. The industry
has a simple message to convey to consumers: “You can’t see
for yourself; but our birds are safe from H5N1.”
Words are powerful; reality is deadly.
In the midst of the current avian influenza (AI) outbreak, the worldwide poultry
death/cull toll stands at 209 million, while the human death toll climbs to over
a hundred. The USDA and scientific experts approximate the arrival of the deadly
flu strain on North American soil as soon as 2007.
With a looming U.S. outbreak, the poultry sector is waging a campaign designed
to increase its earnings at the expense of human and non-human wellbeing. Marketing
propaganda, federal shortfalls and transnational economic developments are key
components in the industry’s perilous strategy. American poultry producers
are the metaphorical Big Bird as the deceived public defaults as Chicken Little.
“Biosecurity” is the U.S. poultry industry buzz-word. The term is
commonly used to depict large-scale poultry ranches as “fortresses”—free
of contamination and public criticism. America’s top meat and egg producers
reiterate the same mantra for customers to absorb.
An AI fact-sheet from Tyson insists, “Tyson Foods and other U.S. chicken
producers take great care to prevent chickens from being exposed to diseases.
Unlike birds in Asia, primarily raised outdoors, commercial chickens in the U.S.
are kept indoors, away from wild birds and other means of spreading diseases.”
In tandem, media outlets are portraying the bird flu crisis as an exclusive problem
of small-scale outdoor operations. However, a documented strain of highly pathogenic
avian influenza has never been traced to an outdoor flock. Obviously, it is easier
to detect illness in a flock of 20 birds as opposed to a flock of 20,000. In
fact, a new report from GRAIN, an international non-governmental organization,
confirms AI emerges frequently in factory farms in countries near and far:
United States (1983, 2002, 2004)
Australia (1976, 1985, 1992, 1994, 1997)
Great Britain (1991)
Hong Kong (1997)
The timing of the industry’s propaganda maneuver is impeccable. U.S. farmed
animal advocacy is steadily gaining strength. With an explosion of critical inspections
at industrial poultry facilities across the country, the animal protection community
has irrefutably confirmed the poor quality of life of birds raised indoors for
meat and eggs. For instance, the respiratory health of confined poultry is compromised
by continuous exposure to a variety of detrimental elements, including dust,
ammonia and bacteria.
Fueled by this evidence, the advocacy sector is reshaping animal agriculture
via legislative, corporate and social reform. Taking notice, the poultry industry
is blatantly exploiting the avian flu crisis in order to curtail the success
of the anti-factory farming movement and advance the industrialization of poultry
As U.S. meat and egg industries manufacture their illusory public image, the
federal government is falling short in providing a thorough avian flu surveillance
plan of commercial production. In June 2006, a federal audit criticized the USDA
for not developing a mandatory national avian flu testing system. The USDA is
not currently gathering consistent state-by-state data of avian flu testing,
monitoring and detection.
“The federal government continues to push the responsibility of finding
and responding to a possible outbreak of avian influenza on states,” Iowa
Sen. Tom Harkin, a U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee member, told The Associated
Press. “As a result, USDA does not have a comprehensive national plan for
surveillance and monitoring of poultry flocks and states lack adequate federal
resources to respond to potential avian influenza outbreaks.”
USDA staff were not finishing investigations of reported cases of the possible
deadly flu strain within the required one-week timeframe. In fact, the audit
revealed 43 cases were not closed for over six months.
Without a federal mandate, U.S. companies are under no obligation to afford flu-free
environments for birds or drive up their production costs.
Moving overseas, the presence of American poultry production is strong in China
and Southeast Asia. With the U.S. lending a helping hand, Asian poultry production
has skyrocketed in the last three decades. The Centre for Research on Globalization
reports Asian countries produce 40 percent of poultry products worldwide.
Confirming the threat of avian flu surfacing in industrial agriculture in Asia,
Birdlife International, a global conservation association, reports: “Most
outbreaks in Southeast Asia can be linked to movements of poultry, poultry manure,
poultry by-products and accidental transfer of infected material from poultry
farms, such as water, straw or soil on vehicles, clothes and shoes.”
Amidst the flu crisis, the U.S. poultry industry is cashing in on Asian expansion
by way of transnational alliances, product exportation and production abroad.
According to the February 2006 GRAIN report, Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand
Group—Asia’s top poultry producer—has poultry agribusiness
ties to nearly every country where the deadly avian flu has appeared thus far.
Ironically, two American poultry companies (Arbor Acres and Avian Farms) have
played a critical role in the integrated development of Charoen Pokphand.
Furthermore, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reveals that
the Japanese ban on Thai and Chinese chicken has fueled American exports to the
country. In fact, 70 percent of chicken consumed in Japan is imported.
Finally, Perdue Farm, Tyson Foods, and other U.S. chicken meat companies are
expanding their industrial operations to China. Last year, John Tyson, the chairman
of Tyson Foods, described China as the ‘foundation for profits in coming
As the deadly avian flu spreads, one thing for sure is Big Bird is not missing
a chance at turning a global negative to a self-serving poultry positive.