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.