June 12, 2015
Industrial egg and turkey integrators are in the midst of a catastrophic outbreak of several Asian-origin Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A (HPAI) viruses: H5N2, H5N8, and H5N1. It is difficult to keep up with the advancement and data collected by the USDA’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), but as of June 9, 222 separate reported incidents had affected more than 47 million birds. Fewer than 8,000 of the birds have been grown in small, so-called “backyard” operations. The remainder are from commercial, industrial operations.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently said that the current cost to taxpayers is over $400 million and could easily top $500 million before this devastating outbreak may be brought under control. While there are no diagnosed cases of this virus jumping to people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a Health Action Network (HAN) alert on June 2 asking health care providers to be alert to the possibility, although the risk to humans remains low.
Watching this unfold reminds us of the popular Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day, where the character awakes each morning to relive the same day over and over again. The government response to this outbreak is so similar to the response to the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) outbreak last year and the swine flu outbreak in 2009—that swine flu did, in fact, make the jump to humans. We spend millions of taxpayer dollars to contain the outbreak, which is appropriate, but we mistakenly make no demand for production system change to reduce the potential for future outbreaks.
While it is important to contain this HPAI outbreak, we must address the structure of industrial food animal production in order to minimize the repeated outbreaks that are intensifying with each occurrence. This is especially important given that public funds are allocated to contain outbreaks and mitigate harm. Lower animal density in all animal production operations is necessary to slow the evolution and spread of highly pathogenic viruses.
In April 2014, as part of USDA’s coordinated response to PEDv, USDA’s Farm Loan Programs worked with producers to provide credit options, including restructuring loans. In the case of guaranteed loans, USDA encouraged guaranteed lenders to use all the flexibility available under existing guarantees, and to use new guarantees where appropriate to continue financing their regular customers. As of June 5, 2014, USDA had allocated $26.2 million for research on the origin of the PED virus, experimental vaccines, competitive grants through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative program, and formula funding for states and universities on research activities, but no measures were taken to research, or change, the structural systemic issues conducive to the spread of a virus once it is introduced in an industrial facility.
The swine flu outbreak in 2009 aggravated the losses of the swine industry that were due, in large part, to the general economic downturn. In partial response, the Administration spent approximately $150 million in additional pork purchases to support producers. Secretary Vilsack added that he “would work with fellow Cabinet secretaries in the Defense, Justice and Education departments to encourage pork purchase on military bases, in prisons and in schools,” according to a TIME magazine article in 2009. Again, there were no discussions about changing the system to mitigate the conditions conducive to the evolution of flu virus and promotion of antibiotic resistant pathogens, even though those industrial pork producers received taxpayer funding.
The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production was a national commission charged with developing recommendations to solve the problems caused by industrial farm animal production in the areas of public health, the environment, animal welfare and rural communities. That report cites a serious public health concern with the industrial production model and its role in the generation and spread of novel flu viruses:
“While transmission of new or novel viruses from animals to humans, such as avian or swine influenza, seems a rather infrequent event today (Gray et al., 2007; Myers, Olsen et al., 2007), the continual cycling of viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks increases opportunities for the generation of novel viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission. In addition, as noted earlier, agricultural workers serve as a bridging population between their communities and the animals in large confinement facilities (Myers et al., 2006; Saenz et al., 2006). Such novel viruses not only put the workers and animals at risk of infection but also may increase the risk of disease transmission to the communities where the workers live.”
The concerns expressed by the Commissioners in 2008 have been borne out by more frequent instances of novel flu viruses developing in the industrial system. Such instances are no longer “infrequent”—they are becoming regular.
A flu virus may arise in both extensive and intensive industrial models. But it is clear from the most recent outbreak of HPAI, as well as the swine flu outbreak in 2009, that the industrial model—characterized by several hundred animals housed in close confinement and in a warm environment—is ideal for the rapid evolution and spread of a virus.
Production system changes for lessening the possibility of the rapid spread of flu viruses include: reducing the animal density of operations, limiting the number of facilities in close proximity to one another, not permitting co-locating of industrial broiler or layer operations with industrial swine operations, phasing out the current form of swine housing in favor of operations based on hoop house production, and reintegrating animals in the crop production system.
It should be a priority of the Administration to develop and promote solutions through systemic changes to the industrial model, and not to simply put a Band-Aid on the problem. Otherwise, these recurring outbreaks, and our government’s response, fit Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.
Image: By jlastras [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons