Copyright 2006 P.G. Publishing Co.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania)
March 19, 2006 Sunday
FIVE STAR EDITION
SECTION: EDITORIAL; Pg. H-1
LENGTH: 1122 words
HEADLINE: BIG CHICKEN FARMS GAVE BIRDS THE FLU;
THE INDUSTRIALIZATION OF POULTRY RAISING IS THE CULPRIT, SAYS WENDY ORENT, AND MIGRATORY BIRDS ARE USUALLY VICTIMS, NOT CARRIERS
BYLINE: Wendy Orent
has never been cheaper. A whole one can be bought for little more than
the price of a cup of coffee from Starbucks. But the industrial farming
methods that make ever-cheaper chicken possible may also have created
the lethal strain of bird flu virus, H5N1, that threatens to set off a
According to Earl Brown,
a University of Ottawa flu virologist, lethal bird flu is entirely
man-made, first evolving in commercially produced poultry in Italy in
1878. The highly pathogenic H5N1 is descended from a strain that first
appeared in Scotland in 1959.
been living with backyard flocks of poultry since the dawn of
civilization. But it wasn't until poultry production became modernized,
and birds were raised in much larger numbers and concentrations, that a
virulent bird flu evolved.
are packed close together, any brakes on virulence are off. Birds
struck with a fatal illness can easily pass the disease to others,
through direct contact or through fecal matter, and lethal strains can
evolve. Somehow, the virus that arose in Scotland found its way to
China, where, as H5N1, it has been raging for more than a decade.
poultry-raising moved from the West to Asia in the last few decades and
has begun to supplant backyard flocks there. According to a recent
report by Grain, an international nongovernmental organization, chicken
production in Southeast Asia has jumped eightfold in 30 years to about
2.7 million tons. The Chinese annually produce about 10 million tons of
chickens. Some of China's factory farms raise 5 million birds at a
time. Charoen Pokphand Group, a huge Thai enterprise that owns a large
chunk of poultry production throughout Thailand and China as well as in
Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Turkey, exported about 270 million
chickens in 2003 alone.
Since then, the
C.P. Group, which styles itself as the "Kitchen of the World," has
suffered enormous losses from bird flu. According to bird-flu expert
Gary Butcher of the University of Florida, the company has made a
conscientious effort to clean up. But the damage has been done.
bird flu has left the factories and moved into the farmyards of the
poor, where it has had devastating effects. Poultry may represent a
family's greatest wealth. The birds often are not eaten until they die
of old age or illness. The cost of the virus to people who have raised
birds for months or years is incalculable and the compensation risible:
In Thailand, farmers have been offered one-third of their birds' value
since the outbreak of bird flu.
farmers who don't want to lose their investments illicitly trade their
birds across borders. In Nigeria, virus-infected chickens threatened
with culling are sold by the poor to even poorer people, who see
nothing unusual in eating a sick bird. So the birds -- and the bird flu
virus -- slip away to other villages and other countries.
researchers still blame migratory birds for the relentless spread of
the bird flu virus. But Martin Williams, a conservationist and bird
expert in Hong Kong, contends that wild birds are more often victims
than carriers. Last spring, for instance, about 5,000 wild birds died
at Qinghai Lake in western China, probably from exposure to disease at
commercial poultry farms in the region, according to Grain. The virus
now in Turkey and Nigeria is essentially identical to the Qinghai
Richard Thomas of Birdlife
International, a global alliance of conservation organizations, and
others dispute the idea that wild birds carried the flu virus from
Qinghai to Russia and beyond. They point out that the disease spread
from Qinghai to southern Siberia during the summer months when birds do
not migrate, and that it moved east to west along railway lines, roads
and international boundaries -- not along migratory flyways.
evidence there is for migratory birds as H5N1 carriers is contained in
a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences. Researchers examined 13,115 wild birds and found asymptomatic
bird flu in six ducks from China. Analysis showed that these ducks had
been exposed earlier to less virulent strains of H5 and thus were
partly immunized before they were infected with H5N1. On this slender
basis, coupled with the fact that some domestic ducks infected for
experimental purposes don't get sick, the study's authors contend that
the findings "demonstrate that H5N1 viruses can be transmitted over
long distances by migratory birds."
so, the researchers conceded that the global poultry trade, much of
which is illicit, plays a far larger role in spreading the virus. The
Nigerian government traced its outbreak to the illegal importation of
day-old chicks. Illegal trading in fighting cocks brought the virus
from Thailand to Malaysia in fall 2005. And it is probable that H5N1
first spread from Qinghai to Russia and Kazakhstan last summer through
the sale of contaminated poultry.
increasingly hysterical world targets migratory birds. In early
February, a flock of geese, too cold and tired to fly, rested on the
frozen waters of the Danube Delta in Romania. A group of 15 men set
upon them, tossed some into the air, tore off others' heads and used
still-living birds as soccer balls. They said they did this because
they feared the bird flu would enter their village through the geese.
Many conservationists worry that what happened in Romania is a
foreshadowing of the mass destruction of wild birds.
deadly H5N1 is washing up on the shores of Europe. Brown says the
commercial poultry industry, which caused the catastrophe in the first
place, stands to benefit most. The conglomerates will more and more
dominate the poultry-rearing business.
experts insist that will be better for us. Epidemiologist Michael
Osterholm at the University of Minnesota, for instance, contends that
the "single greatest risk to the amplification of the H5N1 virus,
should it arrive in the U.S. through migratory birds, will be in
free-range birds ... often sold as a healthier food, which is a great
ruse on the American public."
great ruse is that industrial poultry farms are the best way to produce
chickens -- that Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods and Charoen Pokphand are
keeping the world safe from backyard poultry and migratory birds.
what's going to be on our tables isn't the biggest problem. The real
tragedy is what's happened in Asia to people who can't even afford the
cheap industrial chicken. And the real victims of industrially
produced, lethal H5N1 have been wild birds, an ancient way of life and
the poor of the Earth, for whom a backyard flock has always represented
a measure of autonomy and a bulwark against starvation.
Wendy Orent (email@example.com) is the author of "Plague: The
Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous
Disease." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
GRAPHIC: DRAWING: Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette
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