As Bird Flu Infections Persist, Producers Must Develop Emergency Plans to Minimize Animal Suffering

Photo by PAU

AWI petitions USDA to require comprehensive response plans before compensating producers for losses

Washington, DC—Today, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) petitioned the US Department of Agriculture to change its animal disease regulations to require that producers have in place audited emergency response plans, including strategies to humanely “depopulate” animals, before they can receive taxpayer-backed compensation for animals killed during a disease outbreak.

The Animal Health Protection Act authorizes the USDA to order the depopulation (mass killing) of domestic bird flocks or other farmed animals to combat the spread of disease. Following disease outbreaks in poultry, the department also has the power to indemnify producers for the loss of birds and eggs, as well as certain costs associated with depopulation, disposal, and other virus elimination activities.

For the past 16 months, the United States and countries around the world have been grappling with a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak of unprecedented scale. Research indicates that the disease is becoming enzootic (established) in wild bird populations in Europe and may soon become similarly entrenched in North America. Clearly, HPAI is not going away. By February 2023, the US government had spent an estimated $661 million in HPAI response activities and indemnity payments, with no end in sight. During the 2014-2015 outbreak, the USDA spent an estimated $950 million on HPAI response and preparedness activities and indemnity payments.

As of June 15, HPAI has been confirmed in 325 commercial and 511 backyard flocks in 47 states, resulting in the depopulation of nearly 59 million domestic birds. The three states with the highest number of birds affected by the ongoing outbreak are Iowa (over 15.9 million), Nebraska (over 6.7 million), and Colorado (over 6.2 million).

AWI’s petition, submitted to the USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS), references a 2018 agency rule, which requires producers to have an approved biosecurity plan that is audited at least every two years in order to be eligible for HPAI-related claims.

Biosecurity planning is critical to protecting birds and reducing the risk of disease introduction. However, it should not be the only precautionary measure required for payment eligibility, AWI wrote. To control disease spread, the USDA also must incentivize producers to adequately plan for the rapid killing of infected and exposed animals. 

“The ongoing HPAI outbreak has been an animal welfare nightmare that has caused untold suffering not only for the birds who are actually infected, but for potentially healthy birds as well,” said Dena Jones, AWI’s farmed animal program director. “Unfortunately, if one infection is confirmed, every single bird at the location must be killed — even if that means killing millions of potentially uninfected birds.”

One controversial method used to kill large numbers of birds during the current outbreak is “ventilation shutdown plus” (VSD+). VSD+ involves turning off the airflow in a barn and ratcheting up the heat to above 104 degrees, leaving trapped birds to die from heat stroke over several hours.

VSD+ likely causes extreme suffering, and 3,500 veterinary professionals have gone on record to oppose its use. Nevertheless, according to an AWI analysis of USDA records, between February 2022 and March 2023, at least 44.9 million birds — nearly 77% of the commercial birds impacted in the United States — were killed in depopulations using VSD+ alone or in combination with other methods.

By comparison, the primary depopulation methods used during the 2014-2015 HPAI outbreak — considered at the time to be the largest and most serious animal health disease incident in US history — were water-based foam and carbon dioxide (CO2) gassing.

After the USDA noticed depopulation delays during that outbreak, particularly on layer operations with hundreds of thousands or millions of birds, the department established a policy that depopulations must occur within 24 to 48 hours of avian flu being detected. Further, the department sanctioned the use of VSD+, essentially as a method of last resort to be used only when other, more humane alternatives are not available.

Even with the recent widespread use of VSD+, the USDA’s depopulation timeline has not been met in a majority of cases involving large flocks (at least 100,000 birds), according to AWI’s analysis. Of the 37 depopulation events of large flocks that involved VSD+, nearly two-thirds took at least three days to complete. In the most extreme cases, in which at least 1 million birds were involved, depopulation took more than two weeks.

“Clearly, the size of an operation creates logistical challenges for performing depopulation in a timely manner, specifically within the USDA’s goal of 24-48 hours. These challenges are undoubtedly exacerbated by a lack of preparedness,” AWI wrote. “Because the USDA has declined to limit the size of operations, the only way to better ensure that depopulation can be carried out pursuant to USDA’s goal of 24-48 hours is to incentivize better preparation.”

Other countries around the world hit hard by HPAI — including Canada, the United Kingdom, and much of the European Union — have avoided using depopulation methods that rely on heat stroke, and since the 2014-2015 outbreak, numerous depopulation methods considered more humane have become available.

The petition asks APHIS to exercise its authority to require audited emergency action plans that prioritize the use of more humane methods of depopulation as a condition for HPAI-related payments. These plans should include detailed descriptions of procedures to

  • Depopulate flocks within 24 to 48 hours in a manner that rapidly renders individual animals unconscious 
  • Avoid the use of methods such as VSD+ and others categorized by the American Veterinary Medical Association as “permitted under constrained circumstances”
  • Minimize pain and distress from catching, handling, and confining birds during depopulation
Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

The Animal Welfare Institute ( is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.