July 24, 2015

CLF Week in Links: Bird Flu Chaos, John Oliver and More

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

crowdedpoultryfarm.pngBird flu H5N2 and USDA. The bird flu epidemic that has killed about 48 million turkeys and egg-laying hens is severe enough that the USDA has formed a special task force to prepare for the worsening of the flu in the fall. Part of the work of the task force involves strategizing how to dispose of the carcasses so that landfills are not overwhelmed or unnecessarily contaminated. The flu, known as H5N2, has poultry producers in the Midwest concerned and suffering economic loss; the price of eggs has risen as a result of the flu. On Wednesday, the AP reported that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the development a very promising vaccine strain against H5N2. Meanwhile, the underlying risk factors for the rapid and widespread advance of the epidemic go largely ignored by the media: concentrating hundreds of thousands or millions of genetically similar or identical organisms, whether laying hens or Irish potato plants, makes the species vulnerable to the devastating impact of a new viral strain or a new potato blight. As long as industrial food animal production concentrates large numbers of animals of the same or closely-related genotype in crowded and unsanitary conditions, we can expect more of these pandemics.

Bird flu H5N1 in West Africa. This week the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced that West Africa has its own bird flu, H5N1, that is decimating poultry farms. In Nigeria alone, 1.6 million birds have died from the virus or been culled; while this statistic pales in comparison to the H5N2 strain affecting the U.S., the flu presents serious implications for West Africans who live on the edge of hunger. Also, according to the FAO, “Because the disease can be transmitted to humans and is considered highly lethal, FAO is working closely with the World Health Organization on country assessments, contingency plans, offering technical assistance and investigating potential flu cases and the source of infection.”

Insurance for poultry producers. This week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called for a federal insurance program that protects poultry producers from losses to the bird flu H5N2 that is destroying laying-hen populations across the Midwest. Sen. Al Franken (D–Minn.) supported the move, saying that the flu has been devastating to Minnesota’s producers. He also said, “When the wild bird migrations resume in the fall, there is a very real possibility that avian flu will return, and we need to make sure that producers are able to manage that risk.” Our own Bob Martin, who directs our Food System Policy program, has said, “Protecting producers, who live from flock-to-flock, against loss due to HPAI is important.  But all taxpayer assistance should be accompanied by reforms in the production system that lessen the potential future threat of disease outbreak. So far, USDA has not done that.” Stay tuned for his blogpost about the issue next week.

John Oliver. On July 19, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured a segment on wasted food, in which Oliver cited data from USDA and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He did a great job talking about the problems associated with wasted food: hunger, wasted water and labor, the methane that is produced by landfills filled with rotting food, and of course, money down the drain. Our own Roni Neff had a paper published recently that investigates Americans’ attitudes about wasted food: read it here. I’ll close with a quote from the segment: “Watching all that food go from farm to not-a-table is awful for a bunch of reasons.”

Feedlot debate. Last week the Wall Street Journal featured two opposing opinions on whether beef feedlots are bad for the environment. CLF’s Bob Martin represented the “Yes, the industrial model hurts health and the environment” side of the debate. For a well-argued case against feedlots, read Bob’s description of how feedlot pollution becomes insidious.

Antibiotics and the White House. Our own Claire Fitch represented the CLF at the White House this week, at a summit arranged by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D–NY). The purpose of the summit was to voice concerns over antibiotic misuse to Amy Pope, deputy Homeland Security adviser and deputy assistant to the President at the National Security Council, and Larry Kerr, director for medical preparedness policy for the National Security Staff. We hope that our concerns and those of our partners were heard.

Food chain workers wage. This week the New York Fast Food Wage Board voted unanimously to raise the minimum wage paid to fast-food workers to $15 an hour by 2018 for New York City, according to this Newsweek story. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009, and New York State’s minimum wage is $8.75. The decision by the Board, established by Governor Andrew Cuomo in May of this year, will need approval by the state labor commissioner, which is expected.

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