OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – The spread of a deadly bird flu to poultry raises the gruesome question of how farms manage to quickly kill and dispose of millions of chickens and turkeys.
It’s a drudgery that farms across the country are increasingly facing as the number of poultry killed in the past two months has soared to nearly 24 million, with outbreaks reported almost daily. Some farms had to kill more than 5 million chickens at a single site in a bid to destroy the birds within 24 hours to limit the spread of disease and prevent animals from suffering.
“The sooner we can get there and depopulate the birds that are left behind, the better,” said Minnesota State Veterinarian Beth Thompson.
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 an estimated 13 million chickens and turkeys killed. Other states with large outbreaks include Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Indiana.
In North Carolina, a flock of 32,000 turkeys on a farm in Johnston County were killed after testing positive for bird flu late last month. It was the first time the virus had been detected in the state.
Farms faced with the need to kill so many birds turn to recommendations from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Although it has developed methods to quickly kill poultry, the association acknowledges that its techniques “may not guarantee that the deaths the animals face are painless and without distress”. U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians and officials also typically oversee the process.
One of the favorite methods is to spray birds with water-based fire-fighting foam as they roam on the floor inside a barn. This foam kills animals by cutting off their air supply.
When foam isn’t working because the birds are in cages above ground or it’s too cold, the USDA recommends sealing barns and running carbon dioxide inside, which first renders the birds unconscious and eventually kills them.
If any of these methods don’t work because equipment or workers aren’t available, or when a herd size is too large, the association said a last resort is a technique called quitting. ventilation. In this scenario, farmers shut off airflow into barns, which raises temperatures to levels at which animals die. The USDA and the veterinary association recommend that farmers add heat or carbon dioxide to barns to speed up the process and limit animal suffering.
Mike Stepien, spokesman for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the techniques are the best options when it’s necessary to kill so many birds quickly.
“State animal health officials and producers carefully evaluate 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 quickly killing birds are inhumane, though they particularly oppose stopping ventilation, which they say can take hours and is the equivalent of leaving a dog in a hot car. Last year, animal rights groups filed a petition signed by 3,577 people involved in animal care, including nearly 1,600 veterinarians, urging the veterinary association to stop recommending stopping ventilation optional.
“We need to do better. None of these are acceptable in any way,” said Sara Shields, director of farm animal welfare science at Humane Society International.
Opponents of the standard techniques have said fire-fighting foam uses harmful chemicals and essentially drowns birds, causing convulsions and cardiac arrest in chickens and turkeys as they die. They say the carbon dioxide is painful to inhale and detectable by birds, prompting them to try to run away from the gas.
Karen Davis, of the non-profit group United Poultry Concerns, urged the veterinary association to stop recommending its top three options.
“Those are all ways I wouldn’t choose to die, and I wouldn’t choose anyone else to die, no matter what species they belong to,” Davis said.
Shields said there are more humane alternatives, such as using nitrogen gas, but those options tend to be more expensive and could pose logistical challenges.
Sam Krouse, vice president of Indiana-based MPS Egg Farms, said farmers felt uncomfortable using any of the options.
“We dedicate our lives and our livelihoods to caring for these birds, and it’s just devastating when we lose one of these birds,” Krouse said. “Everything we do every day is to keep disease out and to make sure we keep our hens as safe as possible.”
Officials stress that this virus, which is spread mainly through the droppings of infected wild birds, does not threaten food security or pose a significant threat to public health. Sick birds are not allowed in the food supply and proper cooking of poultry and eggs kills any viruses that may be present. And health officials say no human cases of bird flu have been discovered in the United States during this current outbreak.
Once the birds are dead, farmers need to get rid of them quickly. They usually don’t want to risk spreading the virus by transporting the carcasses to landfills, so teams usually pile the birds up in huge rows inside barns and combine them with other materials, such as stalks of crushed corn and sawdust to create a compost pile. .
After a few weeks of decomposition, the carcasses are transformed into a material that can be spread on cultivated land to help fertilize crops. In some cases, the carcasses are buried in trenches on the farm or incinerated.