poultry production and avian influenza

Recommendations by WHO, FAO and international 'experts', such as those coming out of the recent meeting in Malaysia, have focused on traditional Asian backyard poultry farms. Many experts are urging Asian governments to accelerate the transformation of  its poultry production system from its 7,000 year tradition of small family farms and regional live animal markets to one modelled on the the large-scale confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) of the western 'developed' countries.    One of the major claims behind the argument for more confinement poultry production is 'biosecurity' and the supposedly greater control over disease achieved in large-scale chicken factories. Small farms in Asia "have spawned 80 percent of all human bird flu cases" according to Dr. Joseph Domenech, the chief of the Animal Health Service for the Food and Agriculture Organization.

As we discuss in this article, however, it is not all that clear just where the "spawning" has occurred.

One WHO experts even states 

that backyard livestock farmers pose the greatest threat to the global population. Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific regional director for the WHO, said that the world faces a global pandemic unless Asian governments change the way animals are raised in the region so as to minimize contact between animals and humans.

The WHO official specifically blamed backyard animal feeding operations where animals are allowed to run free and come into contact with wild animals and humans for the development of the H5N1 virus and its spread to humans. He advocated a shift toward the confinement farms that now dominate production in developed countries and which are so greatly criticized by animal welfare activists.

The WPI reports that over the last decade, the swine and poultry sectors of the U.S., Western Europe and other developed parts of the world have moved from small backyard farms to larger, confinement feeding farms were animals are raised in climate controlled surrounds and monitored daily for performance. To a large extent, the farms have been automated and require limited labor. The new farms have also minimized disease outbreak and the spread of diseases from one farm to another.

Another very different point of view is expressed by the Pesticide Action Network of Asia and the Pacific, that blames intensive chicken farming practices:

"The bird flu epidemic raging through Asia is symptomatic of a sick, unsustainable process by which we produce our food," stresses Dr. Meriel Watts, coordinator of PAN Aotearoa/New Zealand. "Cramming tens of thousands of birds into cramped sheds is not only cruel and inhumane, it is a human health disaster in waiting. Because of the stressful and unhygienic way in which these birds are kept, they have to be force fed antibiotics to manage the diseases that can so easily run rampant. The result is lowered levels of disease resistance, and increased risk to human health through resistance to antibiotics."

Which of these perceptions of the cause of the bird flu epidemic is correct?  We can anticipate that there is no black and white answer to this question yet it is one that diserves scrutiny has it has important implications for our health and our future relationship with our animals.

Poultry in Asia

The transformation of Asia's poultry production was already initiated at least a decade ago, but the crisis of highly infectious avian flu has been taken as a pretext to increase the pressure for more intensive systems. We might be suspicious of recommendations that "just happen" to promote the integration of a corporately controlled food chain in which independent producers have no power to defend their autonomy or an equitable share of the profits and that involve the loss of millenarian agrobiodiversity.  The experience with concentrated animal production systems in the West is that, sooner or later, they are forced into disadvantageous contract relationships with the few corporations that control an increasingly consolidated market sector.  The poultry industry is currently highly consolidated, with only 4 corporations controlling over 50% of the broiler marker.Is such a model really the only way or the best way to address serious public health problems that arise in our relationships with our livestock?

Avain flu was first noticed to cause human disease over 100 years ago, though its actual presence may be even older.  The H5N1 strain has been noted in poultry since at least the 1959, where an outbreak in Scotland cause little economic damage and was not tramsmitted to humans (WHO).  But the virus is versatile and many variants have appeared. Some of these have proved to be very dangerous for humans and capable of being transmitted human-to-human.

It is often pointed out that the multi-species farms traditional in Asia and the live-animal markets are ideal environments for different strains to meet, cross species barriers and evolve into pathogenic forms.  Yet small farmers in Asia have been operating such farms and selling in markets for thousands of years. Certainly problems of zoonotic disease have been with us since we began raising domestic animals.  Yet why has this serious threat of pandemic from a stain that was previously far less dangerouos arisen now? What is different about the situation today, from say 50 or 100 years ago that has allowed these highly dangerous variants of H5N1 to evolve?

One of the major changes in contemporary Asia is the on-going transformation of the way that poultry is produced.  Asia is the cradle of the domestic chicken  (probably India and China)and, with a 10,000 year history of living with poultry, contains the greatest biodiversity of chicken varieties. From Asia the chicken has spread throughout the world.

In the late 20th century Asia's gift the world was returned in a new package:  large scale chicken confinements, or "chicken factories".  A relatively recent phenonmenon in the world, only since the 1970s did chicken megafarms began to take off in industrialized coutries such as the US, where, according to USDA the industry has grown from 1 to 7 percent per year. 

Once again from PAN AP

Popularly known as ‘factory farming’, the intensive methods used in industrial poultry farming are largely to be blamed for the recent avian flu outbreak. Chickens are often crammed in comparably smaller coops and cages, or long sheds that can house thousands of birds, and outbreaks of infections can easily spread. The accumulated decaying feces leave the chicken breathing ammoniac fumes day in and day out. Such rearing methods keep the birds in a constant state of misery and stress that weakens their natural immune system, making them highly susceptible to diseases. As a means of solving this problem, intensive farming methods use high doses of antibiotics in chicken feed, and growth hormones are used to increase the speed of the chickens’ growth. As noted by the World Watch 2003 report, chickens often cannot walk properly because they have been pumped full of growth-promoting antibiotics. Farmers often do not use these drugs due to illness in the animals but because drug companies and extension agencies have convinced them that the antibiotics will ensure the health of their birds and increase their weight. Since the chickens are kept in close contact with each other 24 hours a day in their cramped coops, this facilitates the easy spread of diseases.

'Modern' poultry confinements have been enthusiastically embraced by Asian governments as the means of entering and competing successfully in the burgeoning global market for poultry and poultry products.

Following Slingenbergh and his colleagues we can identify four overlapping stages in the intensification of poultry production in South East Asia (and other developing areas)

a) Low input, low output production systems typical of pastoral communities and and peri-urban areas in which animal production is characterised by a rich diversity of livestock well adapted to environmental stress. The subsistence farmers keep ruminants, pigs, backyard poultry or other small stock and today they can be found in large areas of the developing world ...

b) Specialised, commercial production units that are moredeveloped than integrated crop/livestock farms and thatgenerate a surplus for the market. Large numbers of animals are housed in confined feeding operations, increasing the the risk of serious disease outbreaks. Commercial feed is used that includes hormones and antibiotics. Processing and marketing operations tend to be moved nearer to the urban centres.

c) Producers find themselves in areas of high land pressure,feed is brought in from outside and both animal production and processing become integrated in a vertical chain. Often through c ontract arrangements beween large processors and 'independent' producers, industrial scale production,‘harvesting’, processing and marketing form one continuum with bulk production of protein commodities to supply the regional market, or to export to other countries.

d) Animal productivity plateaus and feed conversion ratesreach their limits in all modern production units,irrespective of the geographical setting. Production and processing are driven by multinational enterprise and tend to shift to areas and countries where grain is relativelycheap – often where agricultural land is plentiful, such as in southern Brazil, the USA Corn Belt or the Ukraine –or to coastal port areas which can sustain high levels of imports by ship (Southeast Asia).

FAO estimates that around 50% of chickens are now raised in intensive confinments in Asia, especially around the major urban areas. Yet different sources seem to give a different picture.   Singapore , to take a small example, has an estimated population of 2.1 million chickens (sustained by an importation of 120,000 birds per day from Malaysia).  These birds are apparently concentrated in only seven chicken facilities--meaning an average of 300,000 chickens on one farm. In some areas, on the other hand, including even the highly industrialized Guangdong province of China, 60 to 80 percent of domestic poultry production still originates in small, 'non-modern', family farms.

The most significant Asian players in the emerging global poultry economy are Thailand and China.  FAO states that these two countries account for fully one forth of the global poultry trade. According the Thai Broiler Association , i n 2003, Thailand was the World's 4th largest poultry exporter, selling 540,000 tons and generating some 1.2 billion US dollars. Up to 90% of Thai chicken production is exported to the European Union and Japan.

The importance of the poultry industry is even greater in China, that sold some 600,000 tons in that same year and where poultry production had been growing around 6% per year, especially in the provinces of  Shangdong, Sichuan and Guangdong. Poultry confinements supply a burgeoning internal consumer market fueled by grwoth in China's export industries, but also had begunto participate in a promising trade in poultry products abroad, especially to Japan, the European Union and Russia.  It is important to keep in mind, however, that China only supplies 21% of its own internal market and that the US is the major supplier of poultry and poultry products to China.

However, these emerging export markets have been severely restricted since about 2003 due to increasing quarantine restrictions, first due to SARS and then Avian Flu, particularly the dangerous H5N1 virus.  Governments of both Thailand and China have been struggling to control negative information concerning disease in their poultry industry in the hope of maintaining their growing participation in these international markets.

Role of large scale production in emerging diseases

In order to evaluate the impact of intensive poultry production on the current avian flu epidemic we need to look at another disease, fortunately not a threat to humans, but of considerable concern to the poultry industry.

Infectious Bursal Disease Virus, IBDV, known since at least the 1950s, was long considered a mild infection. In its classic form it causes reduced growth and other problems it is less fatal than other catastrophic plagues such as avian flu or velogenic Newcastle. New strains have arisen since the rapid growth of chicken confinements, however.  IBDV is drawing attention today, as it is thought by at least one scientist to be an important factor in creating the conditions for the current H5N1 epidemic.

IBD causes immunosuppressive disease in young chickens. Thus, its most important effect is secondary, reducing the effectiveness of vaccines and of the birds' natural immune response  to other, often fatal, diseases.  


This site gives a background on IBD and how it has mutated
IBD or Gumboro is an old disease and has been described by scientists all over the world. It is caused by a birnavirus; which targets the bursa of Fabricius the primary organ involved in the development of the chickens immune system. Most of the economic devastation associated with IBD is due to its immunosuppressive effects that lead to poor vaccination response, secondary bacterial, viral and protozoan infections and poor performance. The virus is now recognized in every poultry-producing country in the world. First diagnosed in 1962, the virus has since then changed and manifested itself in different forms that made it even a bigger threat to the industry.
The authors talk about the classic form, known scientifically since 1962 with a series of noticeable symptoms.  Then around 1980 (modern big chicken confinements start to take off in the US in the early 1970s) we start getting the variant strains such as the Delaware strain and others.  With these variant viruses, the usual symptoms of IBD are often not observed but infection is quickly followed by other, especially, respiratory diseases.
What are the causes of the emergence of this new strain of IBDV?  The authors list them:
-Extreme vaccination pressure.
     1. Use of cloned intermediate IBD vaccine that confers very narrow protection.
     2. Vaccinating breeders with inactivated classic-type virus only resulting in chicks hatching with maternal antibodies of limited to the classic type.
 -Short down time between grow-out.
 -Improper cleaning and disinfection. Some growers dry-clean only by removing manure and blowing down dust.
-Increased bird population.

They also note that, during epidemics, the farms implement biosecurity measures, but over time these controls are inevitably abandoned in an effort to cut costs.
These variant strains of pathogenic virus are the product of the way we grow poultry today, in large-scale confinements , often with birds immobile, with lots of drugs and a monoculture environment.  We create the ideal conditions for infections by múltiple strains of virus, consquent emergence of new strains by reassortment and recombination and their immediate wide propagation in an immunosuppressed poultry population.  One
very revealing article in the magazine World Poultry puts it this way:
Despite ongoing research by universities and biologics manufacturers and the efforts of regulatory agencies, the worlds poultry industries continue to be impacted by both catastrophic and erosive infections.  During the current year [2003] either velogenic Newcastle disease or highly-pathogenic avian influenza has caused extensive losses in the USA, the Netherlands, Italy and Southeast China. Intensification of the poultry industry to achieve enhanced efficiency [!] has resulted in high concentrations of broiler and egg-producing flocks creating the emergence of variant pathogens and enhanced dissemination of viral and bacterial diseases.  Reduction in the intensity of vaccination and a decline in the standards of bio-security [!], in an attempt to reduce costs in competitive markets have also contributed to the frequency and severity of disease outbreaks.
Relatively mild infections including coccidiosis, E. coli septicemia, laryngotrachetis, mycolasmosis and infectious bursal disease continue to reduce growth rate, livability and feed conversion efficiency in affected flocks.  Emergence of variant strains of both infectious bursal disease and avian bronchitis viruses add to the problems of selecting appropriate vaccines and programs for administration.  It is evident that a high concentration of poultry in close proximity allows dissemination of variants. Within three years of the emergence of the Delaware variants of IBDV, virtually the entire industry east of the Mississippi was affected with these strains.  There was evidence that the Delaware IBD viruses are now the predominant serotypes in Central America, requiring adjustment of both parent and broiler vaccination programs.
The emergence of variants of existing pathogens and changes in the epidemiology and clinical presentation of poultry disease will continue as a result of intensification, the more extensive use of live attenuated vaccines and an increase in the movement of live birds within national boundaries and in export trade. "(emphasis added)


Dr. Frederick Leung, Associate Professor, Department of Zoology, The University of Hong Kong claims his research directly links the weakened immunity caused by IBDV to recent outbreaks of H5N1 avian influenza in Hong Kong.  Apparently, the international experts at WHO and FAO have not followed up on Dr. Leung's suggestion.

The concentration of animals with weakened immune systems in unsanitary conditions seems an inherent feature of large-scale hog and poultry confinement, despite the rhetoric of better hygienic control. As these livestock operations continue to spread worldwide, so will the conditions that favor the emergence of dangerous zoonotic diseases. Of course, once a new strain has been "spawned", small family farms with little resources for hygienic control become the most vulnerable.

It is perhaps mere coincidence that the current outbreak of highly pathogenci avian influenza and the rise of H5N1 as an emerging public health threat is believed by some scientists to have originated in southern China in 2003, an area of rapidly growing 'modern' poultry production in close quarters with traditional family farms and widespread trade in live poultry and poultry products, both regionally and internationally. 

New Scientist - Bird flu outbreak started a year ago

The outbreak began as early as the first half of 2003, probably in China, health experts have told New Scientist. A combination of official cover-up and questionable farming practices allowed it to turn into the epidemic now under way.

Asia's growing prosperity has been accompanied by a boom in intensive poultry production. After 1997, when all the chickens in Hong Kong were destroyed after H5N1 bird flu killed six people, Chinese producers decided to take no chances, and started vaccinating birds with inactivated H5N1 virus.

This may have been a mistake. If the vaccine is not a good match for the virus - as is the case with the H5N1 strain now sweeping Asia - it can still replicate but most animals do not show signs of disease. In this way, the intensive vaccination schemes in south China may have allowed the virus to spread widely without being spotted

What are the options?

 One has to ask exactly what is the nature of the "efficiency" supposedly gained in large chicken confinements. Though the mantra is endlessly repeated,  that we need to produce this way to feed everyone, such a necessity has not been established. There are alternatives for supplying the poultry needs of the world's population, including any of a number of ways of decentralizing poultry production in the hands of small producers, achieving better quality and better avian health while producing enough for everyone. The only demand such a production system could perhaps not meet is that of the agro-food industry for cheap chicken parts to make processed packaged food.  However, if you evaluate the contribution of industrial packaged food and TV dinners to the alleviation of world hunger (not to mention their effect on the health of the 20% of the population that can afford to buy them), their disappearance might not be an unmitigated disaster.
The only efficiency gained by the current production method is efficiency in concentrating market control and profits in the hands of a few corporations.    The big producers have now created disease problems that will cost society billions of dollars to deal with, apart from the death and human suffering that could result. Governments are expected to be prepared to deal with these problems, yet the corporations who have profited from their creation have lobbied to lower corporate taxes to the point that they hardly share any of the cost burden themselves. Just profit.

 Yet both international agencies seeking to 'develop the poultry industry' and international health funcitionaries scrambling to find a politically palatable strategy to face the threat of avain influenza, usually point to the small backyard poultry producer as the major problem to be overcome. 

Despite the evidence outlined above that large-scale poultry production is a large part of the problem, the recommedations of the international experts insist that it is traditional small farmer practices that must be changed in order to prevent future outbreaks of emerging disesase.

 A decentralized poultry system could supply our need for poultry products and provide these in a healthier form. Many small producers are already providing organic and free range poultry products in every city in the country.  What we need to do that we are not doing is support small poultry producers with research, extension and other programs, instead of subsidizing fast food and big factory farms.

High tech chicken factories are not the only recent trends in poultry production in the United States.  Free range and pastured poultry operations are increasing in number and supply a growing consumer market concerned about the low quality animal products coming out of our current food system.

In the words of John Ikerd:

We don’t need CAFOs to produce our meat, milk, and eggs and we don’t need a corporately controlled global food system to feed the world.  Instead, we need a global network of family farms, independent local food retailers, local restaurants that buy from local farmers, and discriminating food customers who are linked by their commitment to the principles of sustainability.  The keys to the future of farmers, viable rural communities, and to good food for all people are all the same – a new global network of sustainable local food systems, linked by relationships of integrity.

We might simply add that the key to a future more healthful relationship with our animals lies in the same direction.