MENDOCINO Co., 1/3/22 — When one of Renne’s Clark’s ducks died this December, the Albion resident dutifully had it tested through her veterinarian, Village Vet in Mendocino. Then she got unexpected news — her duck, sent to UC Davis, tested positive for H5N1, or avian flu. She quarantined her flock and observed them with no further deaths. But she took the precaution of warning other poultry keepers on Facebook’s Fort Bragg-Mendocino chicken group.
Clark explained in a recent interview that while she knew there were reasons not to use her name, she is more interested in issuing a call to arms to other poultry lovers.
“We’re taking the necessary steps to deal with it, but wanted to let the community know it’s here on the coast. It’s great that Davis offers free necropsies for dead poultry — I’ve used it several times over the years,” the Albion resident wrote on Facebook.
At the same time as Clark told this reporter about her case, the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced that the first case of the current strain of avian flu in a domestic flock in Mendocino County was confirmed. Although the timing is right, state agricultural officials could not confirm whether that first case was Clark’s, or even where in the county the confirmation occurred. There is no proof that the two reports are the same.
Such confusion exemplifies the information fog around avian flu, ranging from public disinterest to the spin put on the subject by the commercial poultry industry. This avian flu epidemic was the worst ever among birds and many other species, and it only continues to rage in 2023. Outbreaks in Czechia and South Korea were reported on New Year’s Day, but the flu is not infecting many humans — yet. It can get any mammal that is likely to touch sick or dead birds- including housecats.
Researchers like virologist Rob Wallace say factory farming of chickens and pigs poses a clear and present danger to humanity, one likely to increase with time. Wallace, credited with predicting the coronavirus pandemic, soon became a pariah in the scientific community where he had flourished for many years. Early research in HIV/AIDS and influenza led him to be a consultant for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His downfall came when he was tracking bird flu origins in China, asking questions that he says got him shut out from some industry-funded university programs. The Unemployed Epidemiologist Who Predicted the Pandemic | The Nation
Wallace says money, not science, determines where and what research is done, thus directing what courses are considered to save humanity from our unsustainable appetites and practices. Unfortunately, he says, the wrong choices are being made. He and many others, including people inside some of the largest industrial chicken and meat companies, have ideas that might create a less terrifying and more sustainable future. But the available public narrative places the blame for the spread of avian flu on wild birds and backyard flocks, ignoring the fact that both lived in harmony for millennia before the advent of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The fact that this avian flu pandemic hitting birds is the worst of the century and is worrying for the future, has gone mostly unnoticed due to pandemic news fatigue. Also lacking is credible information about what keeps causing avian flu, apart from books like Dr. Michael Greger’s Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching or Wallace’s Big Farms Make Big Flu.
Meanwhile the chicken industry is not seriously considering changing its husbandry practices but instead is utilizing decades of research into gene editing to breed transgenic birds that can resist bird flu.
This flu broader and more deadly
The current outbreak of H5N1 is impacting a much wider array of species than past outbreaks. Even more ominous, it is killing wild birds and domestic ducks that normally survive it.
While H5N1 has infected just one human being so far in the USA — a prisoner in Colorado assigned to cull chickens — scientists are worried that a strain of avian flu could someday become a respiratory disease and cause a pandemic along the lines of Covid-19. The California Department of Food and Agriculture says the biggest concern is that people with human flu strains could be exposed to an infected bird, with the two diseases commingling to produce a dangerous new strain that spreads through the air in the way Covid and conventional flu strains are spread.
In 2014 H5N1 mostly disappeared, though it was replaced by H5N6 and H5N8 subtypes from 2014 through 2020. The epidemic of those two varieties wiped out 50 million birds in the Midwest, where factory farms are closer together, especially in Wisconsin and Iowa. California and the West were virtually untouched by those outbreaks.
However, in 2021 H5N1 emerged again in both Western Europe and East Asia. And in the meantime, it had evolved into something more deadly, likely inside Asian factory farms and outdoor markets, a true monster that attacks any mammal or bird that comes in direct contact with the corpses of the wild birds it kills. The virus was brought into factory farms by wild birds, then apparently escaped back out having now evolved to kill its hosts. Historically, avian flus did not kill or even sicken wild birds, and backyard chickens largely survived outbreaks that whirled around the globe.
A wide variety of mammals have been exposed to these dead birds and caught avian flu, which some scientists had thought was not possible. The following, provided to the Voice by the state Department of Food and Agriculture, lists mammal species infected by the current avian flu through December: American black bear, Amur leopard, Bobcat, bottlenose dolphin, Dixie striped skunk and virginia opossum, coyote, fisher, gray seal, harbor seal, raccoon, red fox, all animals believed to have gotten the avian flu directly from wild bird carcasses.
Hon Ip, who runs one of the best sources of information, the Facebook group “Avian Influenza, a.k.a bird flu,” provided US year-end stats for the bizarre worldwide interspecies phenomenon. “There were 98 highly pathogenic avian influenza detections in wild mammals in 2022. These came from 15 states, with Maine and Wisconsin tied at 17 detections each. The 98 detections came from 13 different species of mammals, with red fox making up 54 percent of the total.”
There have been only four human confirmed cases of this outbreak of H1N5 worldwide, two serious with one death and two less serious. To some, this means the disease has less potential human harm than other manifestations of bird flu, including earlier more fatal H151 rounds. To others, it means people have become smarter about handling dead birds. The mortality rate from human avian flu cases from 21st century varieties has been a horrifying 60 percent, according to the World Health Organization.
As of December 22, there have been 192 confirmed detections in wild birds in 37 California counties, including one bird in Mendocino County, since the first confirmed detection on July 13, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. People are warned to stay away from the carcasses of birds and leave handling to professionals wearing PPE.
In an interview, Laura Bradley, public information officer for California Department of Food & Agriculture Animal Health Branch, said there had not been any flock-to-flock transmission observed as of Dec. 22, only domestic poultry likely getting the disease from wild birds. Clark had not seen wild ducks with her birds, but Bradley said that is often the case, as the disease can be transmitted from the droppings of waterfowl flying over a backyard flock. A list of wild bird species carrying and often being killed by the disease can be found on the USDA APHIS website: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/animal_diseases/avian/images/hpai-wild-birds-map.png
This variant is long-lasting
Another worrisome factor about the current avian flu pandemic is that it has been around for two years, while past manifestations lasted a single flu season. By December the global bird flu outbreak had killed hundreds of millions of chickens and turkeys worldwide. (Bradley pointed out that everything about avian flu is measured by its impact on chickens.)
That Clark’s duck was apparently the first recorded case in Mendocino County and just one case has been confirmed here in a wild bird (unknown area of the county), highlights the fact that California has been largely left out of the global H151 pandemic (at least among chickens).
Bird flu travels by the migratory routes of waterfowl, along the Pacific and Central flyways. The Mississippi Flyway, which includes the Midwestern states where chickens and eggs are largely raised, has seen chicken populations hit harder by the avian flu, as has much of Europe and Asia. But the number of cases in wild birds is similar along the nation’s flyways in 2022. California’s stronger regulatory structure and greater biosecurity measures by the chicken industry may have helped keep avian flu from killing chickens in the numbers that the Midwest has seen. Avian flu has been found in US commercial and backyard poultry in 44 states and in wild birds in 46 states since early 2022.
This is a huge jump over the last time avian flu created major problems for the poultry industry. The number of chickens, turkeys and other fowl that were killed or died from the bird flu in the USA became the highest ever this December at more than 58 million, surpassing 2015’s total chicken deaths.
This number, relatively low when wild and domestic outbreaks are compared over time, is considered a victory for US reporting and observation practices by government agencies like CDFA, USDA and CDFA, and measures taken by the poultry industry to make factory farms more biosecure. Yet the industry continues to blame backyard flocks and wild birds in its science and media releases. A solution now proposed by industrial interests is mandatory worldwide vaccinations of chickens. This is seen by critics as impractical and possibly obfuscating the real issue; they say a more likely solution is reforming free trade away from pure profit to more sustainable farming practices.
Wallace says in Big Farms, Big Flu that blaming wild birds is a distraction that can no longer be tolerated. Wild birds bring bird flu in “low pathogenic” form to backyard flocks, which can acquire some immunity, as they are often older birds exposed to more diverse conditions. Industrial flocks, slaughtered after 6-8 weeks for meat chickens to 1-2 years for egg chickens, have very low genetic diversity or variety, which makes it easier for pathogens to get at their immune systems. When the jump is made to the CAFOs, the low pathogenic becomes the deadly “highly pathogenic.” That has been the story in the past, confirmed by research in the Midwest, but this current deadlier virus does not seem to have a low pathogenic component. Bradley said she has only seen cases of highly pathogenic H5N1 in this cycle. Backyard flocks like Clark’s are also both more healthy and better spaced than the industrial model, making their experience with disease different. One duck died, with the rest of Clark’s flock not even showing signs of illness.
In a speech on YouTube, Dr. Michael Greger, author of Bird Flu: a VIrus of Our Own Hatching, said, “The emergence of H5N1 has been widely blamed on free-ranging flocks and wild birds. This is somehow the fault of people… keeping chickens in the backyard for thousands of years. Birds have been migrating for millions of years. Bird flu has been accompanying them. What suddenly turned bird flu into a killer? Now we put millions of chickens into a chicken factory next door to a pig factory,” he continued. “These chicken factories make billions and billions of these mutations continuously. … The big shift in the ecology of avian influenza has been this intensification of the global poultry sector.”
Greger was praised for his viewpoint by many researchers, including an editorial in Virology journal. Others replay the official line that bird flu comes from mutations in the breeding grounds of migratory waterfowl. Wallace points out that money determines what is studied in labs and universities and what boundaries are pushed. He says most research money goes into vaccines that benefit big Pharma, not into the problem’s source or sustainable solutions.
Lessening the immune response
Chickens in CAFOs are not exposed to the outside and its natural strengthening of the immune system.They have closely matching genetics and they were not bred for the health of the birds. These conditions help evolve much more virulent viruses. Viruses are less virulent in nature because they cannot kill the host or they die themselves.
“In nature, there’s kind of a limit to how virulent these viruses can get,” said Greger. “Or at least there was, until now. Enter intensive poultry production when the next host is just inches away. There may be no limit to how nasty these viruses can get. Evolutionary biologists refer to this as the key to the emergence of hypervirulent so-called predator-type viruses, like HIV.”
Greger continued, “When you have a situation where the healthy cannot escape the disease, where the virus can just knock you flat and still transmit to someone else just because it’s so crowded, then there may be no stopping rapidly mutating viruses from becoming truly ferocious.”
The worst avian flu pandemic and worst overall pandemic in human history was in 1918-20 when a strain of probable avian flu killed 50 million people. Of course, there was no such thing as a CAFO in 1918. The deadly mutations are believed to have come from the packed conditions of troops fighting World War I. The virus spread in barracks and battlefields. This reporter’s great uncle, Floyd Sturm, died from the misnomered “Spanish Flu” in 1918 on his way to war.
“Just like the chickens when this harmless virus found itself in these packed conditions, it mutated and became more deadly,” Greger said. “Millions of soldiers were forced together in these stressful unhygienic conditions with no escaping a sick car. The same trench warfare conditions exist today in every industrial egg operation.”
While it’s not 100 percent sure that Spanish Flu was an avian flu variety that jumped into humans, the consensus among scientists now is that is exactly what happened. Here is a link to a study about the topic in the prestigious science journal Nature. The CDC definitively lists the 1918 pandemic as being an avian originated flu.
Industrial methods create breeding grounds for disease
Omnivores all, chickens, pigs and humans, have some similarities in their respiratory and digestive systems on a molecular level. As these viruses rip through packed chickens, they create something much more virulent, and that virulence could jump to humans. One study, conducted by universities in the USA and China, was suppressed as the information on how avian flu could become a respiratory disease was deemed too dangerous to be released. Engineering H5N1 avian influenza viruses to study human adaptation | Nature
These are the kind of alarm bells about the potential of avian flu that Dr. Greger and Wallace warn are being ignored at great potential peril to humanity’s future. Each book offers ways to change meat production and reduce meat consumption. But chicken farming took off in an even bigger way during the pandemic, and CAFO chicken farming is spreading in south Asia with increasing demand for meat. The chicken is also the creature on which genetic engineering is most commonly done. It is unknown the effect transgenic chickens might have on bird flu or other diseases that threaten humans, such as salmonella strains that have become highly virulent and antibiotic-resistant due to CAFO practices. Some in the industry are advocating the creation of new transgenic chicken varieties to resist the bird flu, without changing the conditions that cause it.
- Comparative statistics for the 2015 and 2022 HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) outbreaks. (Source CDFA). Note the problems with classification which include putting major producers who practice free range as “backyard flocks.”
- Affected numbers in the United States
- 2015 HPAI
- 15 states affected
- 21 backyard flocks
- 211 commercial flocks
- Total birds affected: 50.4 M
- 2022 HPAI (as of 12/21/22)
- 47 states affected
- 404 backyard flocks
- 303 commercial flocks
- Total birds affected: 57.82 M
- 2015 HPAI
- Affected numbers in California (backyard flock will be denoted as BYF)
- 2015 HPAI
- 1 backyard flock
- 1 commercial flock
- Total birds affected: 247,201
- 2022 HPAI (as of 12/21/22)
- 43 affected counties (domestic, wild, or both)
- Total birds affected (as of 12/21/22): 719,680
- Butte County: 2 BYF – 1,120 birds
- Calaveras County: 1 BYF – 20 birds
- Contra Costa County: 1 BYF – 60 birds
- Del Norte County: 1 BYF – 43,000 birds
- El Dorado County: 1 BYF – 150
- Fresno County: 6 commercial, 1 BYF – 166,200 birds
- Mendocino County: 1 BYF – 20
- Monterey County: 1 commercial – 15,100 birds
- Sacramento County: 1 commercial, 2 BYF: 97,060 birds
- San Diego County: 1 BYF: 150 birds
- Stanislaus County: 2 commercial – 105,900 birds
- Tuolumne County: 4 commercial – 290,900 birds
- 2015 HPAI
Almost all flu varieties that infect humans originate in China and other packed parts of Asia, creating mutations that require a new flu vaccine every year. Flu mutates so quickly that it is impossible to be sure that vaccines (or genetically altered chickens) will work against fast-changing strains.
CAFOS were actually stopped cold by a virus shortly after they were invented in Delaware in the 1920s. Large chicken operations suffered total losses of their birds from a virus called Marek’s disease. Researchers believe that Marek’s disease only began to evolve when factory farms were created. A vaccine for Marek’s saved the industry. However, Marek’s disease has been spread to every corner of the world by the chicken industry, especially industrial hatcheries. Now no one can raise chickens without fear of Marek’s disease. Although Marek’s seems to pose no risk to humans, the New York Times did an investigative story into the frightening things that has happened in the evolution of Marek’s that scientists thought impossible for any virus. The Merck veterinary manual says the following about Marek’s disease, wholly created by the chicken CAFOs and now spawning super deadly variants inside chicken factories. “Marek’s Disease is identified in chicken flocks worldwide. Every flock, except for those maintained under strict pathogen-free conditions, is presumed to be infected.”
Large chicken farms have also created massive numbers of new strains of human-sickening bacteria like salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter. Overuse of antibiotics made these bacteria evolve into strains that are now untreatable by medicine. Although antibiotic use has been greatly curtailed in the USA and Europe, the CAFO industry has been growing exponentially in China, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, where many controls are not in place.
Free trade rules are written by the global meat industry. This reporter, when he raised chickens and eggs for the farmers’ market, found the industry had made it illegal to sell to grocery stores and restaurants unless I chose to drive chickens more than 200 miles to an industrial inspection facility, where they might get their first exposure to industrial pathogens. Chicken raisers in countries like South Africa that signed neo-liberal free trade agreements soon found it impossible to compete with giant industrial concerns. Others, in places like Gambia, can raise chickens in traditional ways and sell to anyone, because their nation did not sign free trade treaties that kill the small farm. Many of these nations have never had large outbreaks of H151. (there was an outbreak in Senegal).
In March 2009, the first case of a novel H1N1 influenza virus infection was reported in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The virus quickly spread through Mexico and the United States, and in June 2009 the World Health Organization officially declared it a pandemic. Within a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, it had killed about 575,000 people worldwide.
Early reports suggested that the source of the outbreak lay in the factory-style pig farms in the area around its epicenter in Veracruz. In-depth research traced the genetic lineage of the virus to a strain that had emerged in a supersized industrial hog farm in Newton Grove, North Carolina, in the late 1990s, where it had circulated and evolved among pigs before crossing to humans.
Industry writes the rules
Materials considered by the creators of the Paris climate accords were written by the meat industry, with claims that industrial meat chickens are better for the climate. The chickens were described as better because they moved less and ate less and thus created less carbon, an outright lie easily disproved by the tremendous consumption of food by the genetically engineered meat chicken, available on any chart used by industry itself. The notion that grass-fed cattle, pigs allowed to forage and pasture, and integrated farms could actually help with climate change was discarded due to meat industry pressures. This reporter obtained the language about agriculture that was considered in the secret meetings held that led to the Paris accords. The following published journal article documents the secrecy and the compromises that led to a Paris agreement that is not enforceable and does not confront issues like factory farming.
The actual Paris accords missed what may have been a key opportunity to take a stance on improving agricultural methods and punted on the entire subject, with agriculture not even appearing in the actual agreement. It did commit to reducing meat-eating overall but initiatives led by industrial agriculture and the Gates foundation have pushed for large scale, industrial monocrops and the destruction of the movement toward local farming. Now, it’s agriculture that is said to be the biggest threat to the Paris agreements. With nothing in the agreements, many nations in Southeast Asia, Africa and South America have greatly increased the size and number of their CAFOS.
What kind of wild birds are being infected?
“Waterfowl species are the natural host of avian influenza viruses, so we tend to see most infections among species of waterfowl,” said Krysta Rogers, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Other species that share habitat with waterfowl may also be susceptible, such as other water birds like American white pelicans, herons, egrets, and cormorants. Also, species that prey or scavenge on sick birds such as bald eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, turkey vultures, and ravens.” Rogers emphasized that all statistics rely on people reporting dead birds, which often doesn’t happen in the wide open spaces of the North Coast area.
“Testing of wild birds is generally biased towards areas with higher human populations. Areas with more people means the bird is more likely to be detected and submitted for testing versus an area with fewer people. As of December 22, the number of confirmed detections in wild birds for Mendocino County is 1, Del Norte County is 0, Humboldt County is 6, Lake County is 0, and Sonoma County is 8,” she said.
Mapping studies indicate this particular strain may have come from both Asia and Europe to the USA.“The strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 currently in circulation has not been previously detected in North America. Prior to its detection along the Atlantic Coast in December 2021 (Canada) and January 2022 (U.S.), detections of this strain of highly pathogenic H5N1 had been on the rise across parts of Europe,” she said.
“This current outbreak is unprecedented in terms of the geographic range, diversity of wild birds potentially impacted, and number of wild birds that may die from infection,” she said. “Prior to this outbreak, highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses were considered more of a disease of domestic poultry with occasional spill-over into wild birds which may or may not have caused mortality.”
Operations in Europe have greatly increased biosecurity and worked toward easing the misery and ill health conditions that meat and egg chickens are raised in. This has also happened in California but has been resisted in the farm belt of the USA. During the Trump Administration, measures to regulate the chicken industry were discarded or slowed in favor of making the USA more competitive in the worldwide chicken trade.
What is the solution?
While industry seeks pharmaceutical and bioengineering solutions to specific issues such as transitioning away from antibiotics or bird flu, this does not solve the causal problems with CAFOs. A current bill sponsored by Bay Area Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker would force existing USA CAFOs to cease operating in that fashion by 2040. But is the problem consumers or CAFOs? As a farmer’s market chicken seller, I got frowns for charging $6 per pound for meat from chickens that lived happy lives outdoors with real nutrition.
During that period, I interviewed a chicken company president who said I could use his name if the article blamed not the industry, but on the consumer demand for $2 per pound chicken. He was right. The enemy, as Pogo said, is us.
The president was part of an industry group trying to interest consumers in better-tasting chicken. The effort largely failed. US chicken companies were sued and prosecuted after Walmart complained they were working together to raise prices. Meanwhile, European chicken producers are downsizing chicken operations but the cost of the chicken they sell must be government-subsidized to be affordable. And free trade brings in super cheap chicken from the world’s largest and worst CAFOs in Vietnam and Indonesia.
Industry leaders say that free trade agreements must be rewritten to force these countries, which are using the USA CAFO model and often working for USA corporations, to create smaller and healthier poultry factories. This crashes headlong into conservative forces that don’t believe in regulation. Even more powerful opposition comes from neoliberal forces, led by Bill Gates and his foundation, that believe bigger is better and work against the continuation of traditional farming practices in favor of genetic engineering, processed fake meat and other fake foods made from genetically modified soybeans. Their plans call for the massive planting of monocrops in the global South, decimating Amazon rainforests and remaining African savannas and jungles.
To some, Gates and his technology will save the world from hunger and global warming in much the way the chemical “green revolution” did with monocrops and sprays in the 1970s. To others, Gates is just creating another type of too big, badly scaled, overly processed and unhealthy food. Critics like Wallace suggest that global agriculture should be forced to pay its real costs including sewage, insect and air pollution. Operations creating weak, sick animals should be regularly tested for the creation of new pathogens and taxed for the cost of those diseases. Authorities already track new strains of the likes of salmonella, and tie them directly to the source, which is usually an industrial hatchery.
In the journal Global Jurist, Federico Regaldo cites CAFOs for pandemics and epidemics they create. Who is Going to Pay for Causing Pandemics?
Throughout human history, animal diseases like smallpox, measles and bubonic plague have been among the worst humans faced. But in the last 50 years, the situation has dramatically worsened.
According to a July 2020 report from the United Nations, three out of four of all “new and emerging human infectious diseases” are zoonotic in origin, and a study in the journal Nature found that agriculture was associated with half of all the zoonotic pathogens that emerged in humans. In Wallace’s view, this increase is “concurrent” with the livestock revolution, the expansion and consolidation of the meat sector that began in the 1970s in the southeastern United States and then spread around the world. Wallace asks how profitable it is to create low-priced food that can kill a billion people. It’s a question we all need to face.