October 31, 2005
by Dennis T. Avery
Europe's organic and free range poultrymen have just won the right to encourage the spread of the deadly avian flu.
Health authorities are warning globally of a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions of people and hundreds of millions of domestic ducks and chickens. A deadly new strain of the virus, H5N1, has caused more than 100 human deaths in Asia, and forced the slaughter of millions of Asian ducks and chickens. Wild birds have already spread the virus from the backyard poultry flocks of China and Vietnam as far west as Romania and Turkey, and it's expected in Europe soon.
Dutch agricultural officials recently banned outdoor poultry flocks, to prevent the wild birds from spreading the disease in the Netherlands, and perhaps mutating into a more deadly human-to-human form. Up to now, the deaths have been among people who had direct contact with infected birds.
Unfortunately, Europe's organic farmers and Brussels bureaucrats have decided that political correctness is more important than public safety. Or the lives of Europe's domestic chickens and ducks. They've demanded that the Dutch let the organic chickens back outdoors-so long as the birds are covered by nets.
How will nets prevent wild bird droppings from infecting the organic chickens? Nets have holes in them.
The First World's poultry is mostly raised indoors, where the birds are protected from severe heat, cold, and such aerial predators as hawks and owls. The more-comfortable indoor birds need less feed to gain weight. Relatively few people directly contact the indoor birds, minimizing the mutations of epidemic diseases back and forth between wild birds, domestic birds and humans.
Organic and free range farmers claim that chickens are somehow deprived of their cultural heritage if they can't go outdoors to scratch in the dirt, rummage in other birds' droppings -- and peck each other bloody to enforce the "pecking order." Tests already have shown that outdoor birds are more likely to be contaminated with salmonella and other dangerous food-borne bacteria. However, the danger of the deadly new bird flu virus raises the public health risks dramatically.
The organic farmers demanded an exception for their outdoor chickens. The European Union has decided that the Dutch government didn't have the authority to ban outdoor birds. The EU will now "monitor" the spread of H5N1, and its emerging mutations, while the public remains at risk.
There is a bird flu vaccine that might slow the spread of the new virus in humans, but there are two problems: First, it would take 6-8 months to produce enough vaccine to protect 100 million people. We don't have much vaccine production capacity, and it takes a fertilized egg to produce each dose. There won't be nearly enough vaccine to stop a serious epidemic. Second, viruses are constantly mutating, so there's no guarantee that the vaccine will fully protect even the people vaccinated.
That's why the World Health Organization is striving desperately to get Asia's backyard chickens and ducks into confinement facilities, and close down the infamous "wet markets" where consumers pick out live birds. (Neither dead chickens nor processed poultry meat spread the virus.)
Until now, some consumers have been willing to pay twice as much for an organic chicken, which is why the organic farmers are demanding that they be allowed to keep their birds outdoors despite the viral risks. Unfortunately, the greed of the organic farmers is now a significant threat to public safety.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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