Effect Measure

The killing fields, poultry style

Two Associated Press articles over the weekend suggest to me the US poultry industry is getting ready for avian flu, in earnest. One story reports how news of bird flu in US poultry would affect consumer habits. One reports on the practical problem of having to kill hundreds of thousands of birds quickly and efficiently — kill the, that is, for purposes other than sating our appetites. Here’s the essence of the first story, about consumer attitudes. The results are about what consumers would do in a hypothetical instance and are always subject to how events actually unfold. They also have some weird aspects, which I’ll point out:

Avian influenza doesn’t necessarily need to come to the United States for there to be an impact on consumer confidence in the safety of chicken in the United States,” said William K. Hallman, director of Rutgers’ Food Policy Institute.


The Rutgers survey of 1,200 people was conducted over in five weeks in May and June 2006. It suggests if a scare of the highly pathogenic strain of avian flu, H5N1, emerged in Canada or Mexico, more American consumers would stop eating chicken. (AP)

Americans eat a lot of chicken, an estimated 86 pounds per capita. Almost all of it is grown and processed in the US. It’s a $56 billion business. So even a moderately sized bite cuts pretty close to the economic bone. According to the survey:

  • 39 percent of respondents said they would stop eating chicken if the virus was found in chickens in the U.S.
  • 87 percent said they would purchase other food products as substitutes for chicken.
  • If someone contracted avian flu from eating chicken in the U.S, 32 percent said they would stop eating chicken.
  • If the virus was found in Mexico, 20 percent said they wouldn’t eat chicken in the United States. If it was found in Canada, 15 percent would stop.

What’s weird about these results (which may or may not be accurate) is that 39% report they’d stop eating chicken if they found the virus in US birds, but only 32% would stop eating it if someone actually got bird flu from eating chicken in the US. This could very well be true. Never underestimate the counterintuitive nature of human behavior.

The poultry industry is obviously worried, especially as they know that recovery from the initial scare can take months. So they’ve already started the public reassurance campaign:

“If anything were to happen, it’s important for people to know that infected birds would not go to market,” [Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the chicken council] said. More than 100,000 flocks of chicken have been tested for avian flu and none have had to be destroyed, he said.

When a mild, low-pathogenic form of avian flu was found among a flock of turkeys in West Virginia in March, 25,000 birds were destroyed, according to the National Turkey Federation.

The government and industry would be ready to handle avian flu if the harmful strain came to the U.S., said Sherrill Davison, who directs the laboratory of avian medicine and pathology at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of veterinary medicine.

“We don’t know what the likelihood is, but we’re prepared because we have these multiple levels of testing, surveillance and response in place so we can rapidly respond to eradicate the disease,” she said. (AP, as above)

The effectiveness of this reassurance will depend to some extent on how efficiently the industry response is seen to be. Chaos and disorganization among the big producers will not inspire confidence. But if they are required to “cull” (i.e., conduct a wholesale slaughter) of millions of birds in a short amount of time, the practical problem is significant. How do you kill and dispose of millions of birds? It’s not a pleasant thought (forget about the fact that these same birds were going to be killed anyway to feed us), and the appearance of a long story (also AP) on how this might be done suggests to me they are getting us ready:

Under industry and government rules, flocks infected with the strongest strains are put to death as quickly as possible. That’s because if the disease spreads, it imperils both farms and foods they raise. Some strains can also sicken and kill people.


The industry prefers the term ?depopulate,? but no euphemism softens the raw reality of putting down birds by the tens of thousands. This may be done by electrocuting, gassing or chopping under international standards.

Yet, in a virulent outbreak, even these may be too slow and spare too many.

So representatives of industry, academia and government have been looking for another way.

For three years, they’ve investigated the fastest, cheapest and, they say, most humane way to dispatch birds en masse. After debating and field-testing, they say they’ve found an answer in an unlikely place. (Jeff Donn, AP)

The new method is foam used to smother fires. It suffocates birds in minutes and is much less labor intensive than other methods. Cost aside, if there were a pandemic and workers were scarce or afraid to take the job, this is a practical consideration. Whether it is more humane is a matter of debate.

Foam simply fills their windpipes and strangles them. “You might as well drop them in a bucket of water,” fumes Dr. Mohan Raj, a British veterinarian at the University of Bristol who specializes in animal welfare during disease control. (AP)

So the search for a way to kill huge numbers of animals quickly goes on. Air tight barns that can be sealed and filled with CO2 are one suggestion. Inert gases like nitrogen another. Nothing is likely to be perfect:

“There is no really satisfactory, humane method to depopulate a full houseful of birds,” says animal ethicist Bernard Rollin, at Colorado State University.

But let’s face it. If it has to be done, I don’t think humane methods will be high on the list of considerations. I’m not saying I approve, only that it’s likely to be true. People have no compunction about locking up fellow human beings they are afraid might infect them. They’re not going to care much about a chicken they were happy to have killed anyway to make a Happy Meal for their kid.


  1. #1 gilmore
    June 11, 2007

    I remember in the movie Fargo. . . Nah. . .

  2. #2 SaddleTramp
    June 11, 2007

    What about that brilliant USDA plan to send US chicken to China for processing? Last I heard, it was still a Go.

  3. #3 SaddleTramp
    June 11, 2007

    OBTW: those turkeys from WV that were destroyed in March…quite a number of them were destroyed by the VIRGINIA state veterinarian when they were caught being smuggled over the state line instead of being destroyed at their home farms.

    We should not expect that Americans to be mmuch different from our desperate (and disparaged) Asian counterparts.

    Also, I just saw a story come up on Newsnow that Indonesian chickens (vs. geese – which have always been healthy carriers) are now carrying H5N1 without showing signs of illness.

  4. #4 revere
    June 11, 2007

    ST: Haven’t heard any more about it. Our post on it here. Anyone?

  5. #5 Scotty B
    June 11, 2007

    Hmm, after the killing there will be fewer birds available, but there will also be fewer people eating the birds… coincidence or part of His Design 😉

  6. #6 caia
    June 11, 2007

    What’s weird about these results (which may or may not be accurate) is that 39% report they’d stop eating chicken if they found the virus in US birds, but only 32% would stop eating it if someone actually got bird flu from eating chicken in the US.

    Huh. I suppose it’s possible, but is it what the data says? Because when I read this article, I assumed the AP meant, “another 32% would stop eating chicken if someone actually got bird flu from eating chicken in the US.” Since the presumption of the survey might have been that bird flu would be found in flocks first, before it was found in someone who caught it from eating chicken in this country.

    That’s not necessarily so, but it strikes me as by far the most likely sequence of events. Not because I think surveillance is so good that no infected chicken would make it to market, but because, as Revere has explained before, it’s very difficult for humans to catch H5N1. It seems to me that that small probability, plus the low probability that a doctor would test for H5N1 in a patient who hadn’t left the U.S., combined with how easily chickens catch it and how deadly it is to them, would mean people would probably notice it in chickens first.

    On the other hand, someone catching it abroad and coming here, could well happen before there were any infected flocks; or a poultry worker/owner could catch it from sick chickens in very short order even assuming surveillance was in place. But that’s not what they asked about.

  7. #7 Thinlina
    June 11, 2007

    But there have been already many cases of H5N1 in birds in USA, haven’t there? There was five H5N1 wild bird flock cases in USA even in May 2007. After August last year 2006 there have been total of 22 known cases of wild bird H5N1 in USA.
    The latest five cases were in Kent and Sussex counties in Delaware.

    It doesn’t matter whether the H5N1 is low path or high path to birds. Essential is the pathogenicity of H5N1 to humans. Which seems to be something between 60-80%.

  8. #8 caia
    June 11, 2007

    Thinlina, that’s true, but a) that’s not what they were asking people about, and b) I haven’t heard of any low-path (for birds) H5N1 killing any people.

    So while the low/high path terms refer to birds, they do seem to have relevance for humans, in that it’s the high path H5N1 that’s infecting people, and the high path kind that has a CFR of 60-80%.

    Revere, if I am mistaken about this, please correct.

  9. #9 Thinlina
    June 11, 2007

    caia, I guess some relevance is also in that many of H5N1 killed people haven’t had contact with H5N1 killed poltry.

  10. #10 revere
    June 11, 2007

    caia: You might be right. I couldn’t quite make sense of it, but your interpretation works, I think.

    Thin: Occasional LPAI in the US is all. So far.

  11. #11 sandy
    June 11, 2007

    see the full survey.

    revere’s original impulse is correct. more are scared of chickens than humans. i am scared of bad survey questions

  12. #12 Thinlina
    June 11, 2007

    revere, do you know what is LPAI’s pathogeneicity to humans if transmitted?

    “Thin: Occasional LPAI in the US is all. So far.”

  13. #13 crfullmoon
    June 11, 2007

    Hard to know, when not every state is doing any testing.
    (MA and CT have taken zero samples this year?!)

    They don’t know how/when “LP” mutates to “HP”.

    Where are the influenza sequences for the very healthy 15 year old CT girl who
    died so fast
    (after transfer to Boston) this year?
    -her father is getting the brush-off when he asked her Dr. about sequences.

    What about testing the municipal playing fields, which are frequented by geese and ducks? (Like the ones the CT girl played lacrosse on?)

    Where are the influenza sequences for the kids that were on ventilators or died in other parts of the country this past winter?

    Why aren’t Americans being told, Yes, we’ve had H5N1 in wild waterfowl since at least 2006, and that turkey outbreak in WV,
    and you need to have better habits when outdoors, hunting, farming, or being around animals, or preparing food.

    Why aren’t pet owners, and the general public, being told to follow the Recommendations the FAO came out with March 2006?
    (Probably the same “reason” they aren’t being told to
    prepare for a Pandemic Year the govt can’t aid them during.)

  14. #14 revere
    June 11, 2007

    Thin: LPAI H7 and H9 have caused mild disease (flu like sx and conjuctivitis) except for one death in a vet in The Netherlands (H7N7). That one had an E627K in PB2 which has been associated with virulence in H5 as well. There is one paper by Suarez and his group showing non homologous recombination in one LPAI to HPAI mutation (can’t remember if it is H7 or H9). As I recall it was recombination between different segments, not different viruses (this is from memory).

  15. #15 Mario Pineda-Krch
    June 12, 2007

    LP AI does not necessarily have to be commercially disruptive and as long as its not a subtype that affects humans it could be questioned if culling of flocks having LP AI is the right way to go. This is specially pertinent for flocks that are of high commercial value or are difficult to replace for any number of reasons. An alternative approach that is currently being explored by several research institutions is to devise practical strategies to manage infected flocks so that the virus does not spread and focus on close monitoring to detect possible emergence of HP strains. There is some ground breaking research being done on this topic by Dr. Verdugo at the Center for Animal Disease Modeling and Surveillance at University of California, Davis.

  16. #16 Thinlina
    June 13, 2007

    revere, you seem to be avoiding my question by offering a H7 or H9 LPAI as an answer. I’ll repeat my question fuller:
    Do you know what is H5N1 LPAI’s pathogeneicity to humans if transmitted?

    “Thin: Occasional LPAI in the US is all. So far.”

  17. #17 revere
    June 13, 2007

    Thin: Didn’t mean to avoid it. I don’t know of any documented LPAI H5N1 infections in humans. The vet study I posted on a little while ago showed positive serology to H5N2, but that’s all I know of.

  18. #18 Thinlina
    June 13, 2007

    revere, I know 🙂 It was quite a rhetorical question, after all. I guess impossible to answer whether LPAI H5N1 is HPAI to people or not.

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