The Terrifying Question of Bird Flu: How to Kill Millions of Chickens

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The spread of a bird flu deadly to poultry raises a serious question about how farms manage to quickly kill and dispose of millions of chickens and turkeys.

It’s a task that farms across the country are increasingly faced with as the number of poultry killed in the past two months has climbed to 24 million, with outbreaks occurring almost every day. Some farms have had to kill more than 5 million chickens in a single location with the goal of destroying the birds within 24 hours to limit the spread of disease and prevent the animals from suffering.

“The faster we can get to the site and the better off we can remove the birds that live on the site,” said Minnesota state veterinarian Beth Thompson.

The outbreak is the biggest since 2015, when producers had to kill more than 50 million birds. Cases have been reported in 24 states so far this year, with Iowa being the hardest hit, killing nearly 13 million chickens and turkeys. Other states with large-scale outbreaks include Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Indiana.

Faced with the need to kill so many birds, farms turned to the recommendations of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Even as it has developed methods to kill poultry quickly, the union acknowledges its techniques “cannot guarantee that the animal’s death is painless and distress-free.” Veterinarians and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials also commonly oversee this process.

One of the preferred methods is to spray water-based fire-fighting foam on birds as they move around the ground inside a barn. That froth kills the animals by cutting off their air supply.

When the foam won’t work because the birds are in cages above ground or it’s too cold, the USDA recommends sealing the barn and piping carbon dioxide inside, first sedating the birds and eventually killing them.

If one of those methods won’t work because equipment or personnel aren’t available, or when swarm sizes are too large, the association said the last resort is a technique called ventilation shutdown. In that scenario, farmers block the flow of air into the barn, raising the temperature to a level at which the animals die. The USDA and the Veterinary Association recommend that farmers add extra heat or carbon dioxide to the barn to speed up the process and limit animal suffering.

Mike Stepian, a spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said techniques are the best option when it is necessary to kill so many birds quickly.

“State animal health officials and manufacturers carefully evaluate various options to determine the best option for the human population, and such decisions are not taken lightly,” Stepian said.

Not everyone agrees.

Animal welfare groups argue that all of these methods are inhumane for quickly killing birds, although they are particularly opposed to ventilation shutdowns, which they note can take hours and allow a dog to stay in a hot car. It’s like leaving. Animal rights groups last year filed a petition signed by 3,577 people involved in animal care, including about 1,600 veterinarians, urging the veterinary association to stop recommending ventilation shutdowns as an option.

“We have to do better. None of this is acceptable in any way,” said Sarah Shields, director of agricultural animal welfare science at Humane Society International.

Opponents of the standard techniques state that firefighting foam uses harmful chemicals and that it essentially drowns the birds, causing chickens and turkeys to die and die. They say that breathing carbon dioxide is painful and can be detected by birds, prompting them to try to run away from the gas.

Karen Davis of the non-profit group United Poultry Concern urged the veterinary association to stop recommending all three of its main options.

“Those are all ways I have chosen not to die, and I will not choose anyone else to die, no matter what species they are,” Davis said.

Shields said there are more humane alternatives, such as using nitrogen gas, but those options tend to be more expensive and may pose logistical challenges.

Sam Krause, vice president of Indiana-based MPS Egg Farms, said farmers feel sad about exercising either option.

“We put our lives and livelihoods into the care of those birds, and it’s devastating when we lose any of those birds,” Krause said. “Everything we’re doing every day is focused on keeping the disease out and making sure we’re keeping our chickens as safe as possible.”

Officials emphasize that the virus, spread primarily through the droppings of infected wild birds, does not pose a threat to food security or represent a significant public health threat. Sick birds are not allowed into the food supply and properly cooking poultry and eggs kills any viruses that may be present. And health officials say no human cases of bird flu have been found in the United States during this current outbreak.

Once a hen is dead, farmers must dispose of the birds quickly. They usually don’t want to risk spreading the virus by taking the carcasses to landfills, so the crew usually stacks the birds in large rows inside the barn and mixes them with other materials, such as corn stalks and To make sawdust. a compost pile.

After a couple of weeks of decomposition, the carcasses are turned into a material that can be spread over the crop to help fertilize the crops. In some cases, dead bodies are buried in trenches in the field or burnt.

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