This year, poultry producers in the United States have dealt with the worst outbreak of avian influenza in US history. Between January and June, nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys on 232 poultry operations were killed after being affected by the disease. The total economic cost of the outbreak is an estimated 4 to 5 billion dollars.
While no outbreaks have been reported since June, agricultural officials were preparing for the virus to make a comeback this fall as wild birds begin their migration south. As part of this preparation, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) identified what it considers to be acceptable methods for killing and disposing of infected birds.
To date, APHIS’ only approach to avian flu has been the killing of exposed birds. In conjunction with state agricultural departments, APHIS has relied on two methods to “depopulate” flocks: carbon dioxide gas (for killing caged egg-laying hens) and water-based foam (for killing floor-reared birds, including chickens and turkeys raised for meat). Both methods are known to be painful to animals and can lead to a prolonged time until death. Water-based foam, which obstructs the airway so that the birds suffocate to death, is not considered an acceptable form of euthanasia by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and the World Organization for Animal Health does not recognize it as an acceptable method of killing animals for disease control purposes.
An even more inhumane method—ventilation shutdown (VSD)—has been proposed by APHIS as a “last resort” option. With this method, producers turn off the ventilation system to remove airflow and heat the poultry houses up to 100–120 degrees Fahrenheit. The elevated temperature eventually causes the birds to die of heat stress, with death taking up to three hours to occur. The suffering inflicted by this method is undoubtedly extreme.
Although VSD has yet to be approved, it is already in use by some farmers. APHIS has made it clear that it may approve VSD—sending a clear signal that efficiency, not the welfare of birds, is its main priority. APHIS has acknowledged that VSD is not humane and also not sanctioned by any veterinary authority, but justifies its use on the basis that VSD requires no special equipment and can be carried out quickly.
The killing of millions of sentient creatures using methods known to cause prolonged distress is a moral tragedy of immense proportions. The poultry industry in the United States continues to design and construct massive complexes that confine hundreds of thousands of birds in close proximity without consideration for how the animals will be protected in emergency situations, or humanely killed if that is deemed necessary. The federal government continues to compensate producers for losses incurred during these outbreaks without requiring that the industry change the way it raises and houses animals. Everyone pays for the poultry industry’s irresponsibility—consumers through higher prices, taxpayers through producer compensation programs, and the animals themselves through suffering miserable lives and cruel deaths.