The grisly question of bird flu: How to kill millions of poultry

FILE – Turkeys stand in a barn at a turkey farm near Manson, Iowa on August 10, 2015. When cases of bird flu are found on poultry farms, officials act quickly to slaughter all the birds in that flock, even if they number in the millions. but animal protection groups say their methods are inhumane. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, file)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The spread of avian flu that kills poultry raises the grisly question of how farms manage to quickly kill and dispose of millions of chickens and turkeys.

It’s a chore that farms across the country are increasingly facing as the number of poultry killed in the past two months has risen to nearly 24 million, with outbreaks being reported almost daily. Some farms have had to kill more than 5 million chickens at a single site, with the goal of killing the birds within 24 hours to limit the spread of the disease and prevent animal suffering.

“The sooner we can be on site and depopulate the birds that remain on site, the better,” said Beth Thompson, Minnesota state veterinarian.

The outbreak is the largest since 2015, when producers had to kill more than 50 million birds. So far this year, there have been cases in 24 states, with Iowa being the hardest-hit, with about 13 million chickens and turkeys killed. Other states with significant outbreaks include Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Indiana.

Farms faced with the need to kill so many birds turn to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommendations. Although it has developed methods to kill the poultry quickly, the association acknowledges that its techniques “may not guarantee that the death of the animals will be painless and stress-free”. Veterinarians and US Department of Agriculture officials also usually oversee the process.

One of the favorite methods is to spray birds with water-based fire-fighting foam while they walk around on the floor of a barn. This foam kills the animals by cutting off their air supply.

When foam doesn’t work because birds in cages are off the ground or it’s too cold, the USDA recommends sealing barns and venting carbon dioxide inside to first render the birds unconscious and eventually kill them.

If one of these methods doesn’t work because equipment or workers aren’t available, or if a flock’s size is too large, a last resort, according to the association, is a technique called shutting off the ventilation. In this scenario, farmers stop the flow of air into the barns, causing temperatures to rise to levels where animals die. The USDA and Veterinary Association recommend farmers add supplemental heat or carbon dioxide to barns to speed up the process and limit animal suffering.

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

“Government animal health agencies and producers carefully consider the various options to determine the best option for humane depopulation and do not make such decisions lightly,” Stepien said.

Not everyone agrees.

Animal welfare groups argue that all of these methods of killing birds quickly are inhumane, although they are particularly opposed to turning off the ventilation, which they say can take hours and is akin to leaving a dog in a hot car. Animal rights groups filed a petition last year signed by 3,577 people who care for animals, including nearly 1,600 veterinarians, urging the Veterinarians’ Association to stop recommending turning off ventilators as an option.

“We have to do better. None of these are in any way acceptable,” said Sara Shields, director of livestock welfare science at Humane Society International.

Opponents of standard techniques said firefighting foam uses harmful chemicals and essentially drowns birds, causing chickens and turkeys to experience convulsions and cardiac arrest as they die. They say carbon dioxide is painful to breathe in and is detectable by the birds, prompting them to try to flee the gas.

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

“These are all ways I wouldn’t choose to die, and I wouldn’t choose anyone to die, regardless of what species they are,” Davis said.

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

Sam Krouse, vice president of MPS Egg Farms, based in Indiana, said farmers felt unhappy using either option.

“We invest our lives and livelihoods in caring for these birds and it’s just devastating when we lose one of these birds,” Krouse said. “Everything we do every day is geared towards keeping the disease away and making sure we keep our chickens as safe as possible.”

Officials emphasize that this virus, which is mainly spread through the droppings of infected wild birds, does not pose a food safety concern or a significant public health threat. Sick birds must not be included in the food supply and proper cooking of poultry and eggs will kill any viruses that may be present. And health officials say no human cases of bird flu have been found during this current outbreak in the United States.

When the poultry is dead, farmers have to dispose of the birds quickly. They usually don’t want to risk spreading the virus by transporting the carcasses to landfills. Therefore, crews usually stack the birds in huge rows in barns and combine them with other materials, such as: B. shredded corn stalks and sawdust to make a compost heap.

After a few weeks of decomposition, the carcasses are converted into a material that can be applied to farmland to help fertilize crops. Carcasses are sometimes buried in ditches in the yard or burned.

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