May 21, 2024

Farm & Food File: Another $1 billion to refinance status quo won’t stop ag pandemics

When word came out of Texas on April 1 that avian flu had made another unwelcome hop — this one from a dairy cow to a human — the news seemed like an April Fool’s joke.

It wasn’t.

In fact, highly pathogenic avian influenza — HPAI, or bird flu, the quick-killing disease that has led to either the death or slaughter of 82 million chickens, turkeys and other birds in the United States since 2022 — had jumped not one, but two species in just two weeks.

The first reported instance of species jump came in mid-March after a handful of newly born goats died on a Minnesota farm that had had a bird flu outbreak in its poultry flock, according to state health officials.

Minnesota is the nation’s largest turkey-growing state, raising between 42 million and 45 million birds per year.

Two weeks later, HPAI was detected in dairy cattle in five disparate states: Texas, New Mexico, Michigan, Idaho and Kansas.

State and federal agriculture and food safety officials raced to assure the public that America’s dairy supply was not threatened because avian flu is not life-threatening to ruminants like it is in birds.

Then, the week before Easter, a dairy worker in Texas who the Texas Department of State Health Services described to the Washington Post as someone who “worked directly with sick cows at the dairy,” tested positive for the virus. His only symptom, however, was a treatable “eye inflammation.”

But, the Post added, “the newly emerged case does not change the risk of the general public, which remains low, federal officials said.”

America’s poultry flocks — mostly egg-laying chickens, broiler meat chickens and turkeys — remain highly vulnerable to the current strain of avian flu.

Since its latest outbreak in February 2022, more than 80 million poultry — mostly egg-laying chickens — in 47 states have been killed by disease.

The high number is attributed to the protocol tied to HPAI’s discovery in any flock: total depopulation in an attempt to limit its spread. It’s both a costly and, to date, completely ineffective cure.

“Since bird flu outbreaks began almost two years ago,” the Food and Environmental Reporting Network reported Jan. 9, “the USDA has spent more than $1 billion to compensate farmers for lost flocks and to suppress the spread of the viral disease.”

Compensation, yes; suppression, well, good luck with that. In fact, this is the second USDA “compensation and suppression effort” on avian flu in just the last decade.

The “2014-2015 outbreak,” as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service explained, cost taxpayers “nearly $850 million … for response activities … and indemnity payments.”

And, added APHIS, after spending “another $100 million … for further preparedness … it was the most expensive animal health incident recorded in U.S. history.” Until this one anyway, 10 years and at least another $1 billion later.

That’s mostly because USDA’s “further preparedness” doesn’t include changes to today’s industrial poultry and livestock production systems that often stack, stuff and stash as many birds, hogs and cattle into disease-fostering confinement systems that can — and do — become breeding grounds for chronic ailments affecting both animals and humans.

And confinement means confinement. For example, USDA’s 2022 Ag Census shows that 75% of all U.S. egg production comes from 347 “facilities” that house, on average, 850,000 birds.

Likewise, reports the census, 834 dairy operations with an average of 8,300 cows apiece, account for 42% of the national dairy herd.

Why would this precariously balanced, pandemic-fostering system ever change if taxpayer money — according to FERN, $715 million of USDA’s $1 billion has been spent on “indemnities … to producers, growers and integrators for depopulated birds and eggs” — refinances the entire tottering enterprise every 10 years or so?

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.