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How the U.S. Poultry Industry is Banking on the Avian Flu Crisis
Affixed to the perimeter barbed wire of Foster Farms poultry operations throughout the West, the signs read: “Stop: Keep Out – Biosecure Area”. As the lonesome guards of commercial flocks confined beyond the industrial fencing, the placards represent the firm boundary between the public and the inter-workings of Foster Farms and other companies within U.S. poultry industry, the largest producer in the global economy.
The industry has a simple yet reticent 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 (A.I.) outbreak, the worldwide poultry death/cull toll stands at 209 million while the human death toll climbs over a hundred.
With an American outbreak looms, 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 development are key components to 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 from public criticism. America’s top meat and egg producers reiterate the same mantra for its customers to consume:
“Tyson Foods and other U.S. chicken producers take great care to prevent chickens from being exposed to diseases. Unlike birds in Asia, which are primarily raised outdoors, commercial chickens in the U.S. are kept indoors, away from wild birds and other means of spreading diseases.” [Avian Influenza Factsheet from www.tyson.com]
In tandem, media outlets are portraying the bird flu crisis as a problem exclusive to 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 twenty birds as opposed to a flock of 20,000. In fact, a new report from GRAIN, an international non-governmental organization, confirms the A.I. surfaces frequently in factory farms in countries near and far:
· United States (1983, 2002, 2004)
· Australia (1976, 1985, 1992, 1994, 1997)
· Great Britain (1991)
· Mexico (1993-1995)
· Hong Kong (1997)
· Italy (1999)
· Chile (2002)
· Netherlands (2003)
· Canada (2004)
The timing of the industry’s progranda maneuver is impeccable. U.S. farmed animal advocacy is steadily gaining strength. With an explosion of critical inspectionsat industrial poultry facilities across the country, the animal protection community has irrefutably confirmed the poor quality-of-life of birds raised for meat and eggs – indoors. For instance, the respiratory health of confined poultry is compromised by continuous exposure of 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 further advance the industrialization of poultry production.
As U.S. meat and egg industries manufacture its illusory public image, the federal government is falling short of providing a thorough avian flu surveillance plan for commercial production. In June 2006, a federal audit criticized the U.S.D.A. for not developing a mandatory national avian flu testing system in place insofar. The U.S.D.A. 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, U.S.D.A. 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.”
U.S.D.A staff was not finishing investigations of reported cases of the possible deadly flu strain within the required one-week timeframe. In fact, the audit revealed that 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.
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 that Asian countries produce 40 percent of poultry products worldwide.
Confirming the presence of deadly avian flu strain in Asian industrial agriculture, 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. On a domestic front, Arbor Acres is a large breeding supplier to Foster Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride; Avian Farms is a key supplier to Gold Kist and Foster Farms.
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 the chicken consumed in Japan is imported.
Finally, Perdue Farms, 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 ‘foundation for profits in coming years’.
As the deadly avian flu spreads, one thing for sure is that Big Bird is not missing a chance at turning a global negative to a pandemic positive.
Learn about the role of American poultry industry in the spread of the deadly avian flu at www.grain.org/go/birdflu.