Bird flu is flying, turkeys are dying


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Rachel Choi, Illustrations/Graphics Editor & Chief Copyeditor & Social Media Manager

Let’s imagine: you’re sprinting to the nearest Walmart at full speed and hurtling straight towards the poultry section. You’ve finally mastered spatchcocking in theory, and you need that turkey to practice immediately. But, what the hell? The turkeys are smaller than you remember, and maybe even more expensive. What’s going on?

The avian flu is going on, that’s what.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza, more commonly known as avian flu or bird flu, is taking out an alarmingly high number of poultry this year. Originated from wild birds and transmitted via droppings, avian flu is deadly to domesticated birds. It has a 90-100 percent mortality rate within 48 hours once signs of infections arise. 

Scientists place the blame of the outbreak on a subtype of the virus—one that manages to survive harsher climates and cling onto migrating wild birds and spread much further, beyond country borders. While this certainly is the broader reason, it’s about time we address the underlying issues that make viral outbreaks so easy within this nation’s agricultural sector: unethically poor living conditions on poultry farms that culminate into a dangerous lack of biosecurity. It’s up to the government to hold the poor farming practices—and those implementing them—accountable by enforcing policies to promote healthy and ethical ways of poultry farming.

In the meantime, consumers also need to educate themselves on the fallacies of poultry farming and understand the processes their factory-acquired birds experience—and can start with the basics.

As of Nov. 11, 50.32 million domesticated birds have been affected, with more than 6 million turkeys depopulated. Although there does seem to be a decline in the number of infected birds as time ticks on, it’s still a huge problem that will cost the country’s agricultural sector quite a bit—just look at the $3 billion loss of the 2014-15 outbreak.

The alarmingly high number of birds affected can be attributed to the environment they are raised in. Farms that mass produce poultry tend to overcrowd an enclosed area to ensure maximum production of meat. On a poultry farm, there can be up to 40,000 birds in one shed. Imagine a tiny room in the Walker Building being packed with over 50 students during flu season—ideal conditions for a contagious virus to spread. 

Then arise the poor sanitary conditions in these farms. The droppings, feathers, bedding, and even rotting carcasses—alongside the overcrowded shed—can cause chronic stress and weaken birds’ immune systems. 

Not only that, but artificial breeding—especially with broiler chickens and most definitely for turkeys—causes a limited gene pool that increases birds’ susceptibility to viral decimation. Artificial breeding produces high levels of breast protein, which can suppress birds’ immune systems and even hinder their abilities to stand upright. 

Here’s another big problem: poultry, like other livestock, suffer from antibiotic misuse that exacerbates vaccine-resistant bacteria and genes. This prevents effective vaccination against infectious diseases, becoming a key player in mutating viruses like the avian flu, and causing a surge that is impossible to fend off. The overuse of antibiotics can also create a drug-resistant superbug, which not only affects the animals but can also jump to humans. Antibiotic resistance is becoming such a big problem that the World Health Organization is considering it to be one of the biggest threats to “global health, food security, and development” in the world.

All of these factors contribute to the idea of deplorable biosecurity. Biosecurity is everything mentioned above: everything workers do to prevent viral contamination, diseases, and so on. From the overcrowded enclosures to the misuse of antibiotics, it isn’t a stretch to conclude biosecurity is extremely weak when it comes to modern-day poultry farms. It’s no wonder another powerful avian flu outbreak grabbed the poultry industry by the throat. 

The poultry industry’s problem with poor biosecurity doesn’t just affect the birds; it can affect humans in ways many haven’t considered before. The avian flu can infect humans from bird-to-human contact—don’t worry, you won’t get infected shopping for turkeys, as the virus can only spread through direct contact with an infected bird or contaminated environment—but is understood as untransmissible human-to-human. However, the problem is the virus has the potential to mutate into something more transmissible on a larger scale; the mutation has been categorized by the World Health Organization as a problem that might escalate into a pandemic

Furthermore, in 2019, it was estimated that industrialized agriculture as a whole contributes to an astounding 9.6 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In short, poultry farming, alongside its brethren of other industrialized farms, contributes to the leading problem of global warming and will only grow in its contribution from here—unless something changes. 

So what needs to be changed? To be completely frank, it’s up to the government to enforce more policies. The government regulates biosecurity measurements—overcrowding, sanitary conditions, artificial breeding, and overuse of antibiotics—and it’s up to the government to stand up and make a lasting change that benefits not just birds but also farmers. Through methods like giving incentives to farmers who lessen the usage of antibiotics, the government can begin to hold farmers accountable for these conditions.

While change must occur on a governmental level, we as common folk should still do what we can to help. Help facilitate change with this upcoming turkey day: buy from local farms, and leave factory-farmed birds off the table. Research the inhumane realities of poultry farming and raise awareness. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and—whether it’s factory-farmed or not—be aware of your turkey’s origins before spatchcocking the absolute hell out of that glorious bird.