Nearly half a million turkeys and chickens were killed this week in Indiana after contracting a new strain of avian influenza called H7N8. This is a necessary step to stop the spread of the disease, but the methods used to kill some of the birds have drawn some criticism.
Late last year, the United States Department of Agriculture approved a controversial method of killing off sick birds called ventilation shutdown, as part of new safety protocols for controlling the spread of the virus. The practice requires farms to turn off the air systems and water supply in poultry barns, causing the birds to slowly overheat and suffocate. At the time, USDA spokesperson Lyndsay Cole told me ventilation shutdown would not be the preferred method for killing birds, and would be only okayed if it was the sole option for euthanizing infected birds within 24 hours of detection—a new deadline the USDA had set.
"The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will not make this decision lightly," Cole wrote in an email. "APHIS understands the concerns about this method."
But this week, in dealing with the very first cases of avian influenza since introducing the new safety protocols, ventilation shutdown was used to kill some of the 400,000 turkeys and chickens who were either infected or at risk of infection of H7N8. At one farm,156,000 chickens that weren't sick were slaughtered due to the possible risk of infection, according to the Associated Press.
The USDA would not confirm how many birds were killed using ventilation shutdown and how many were killed using a water-based foam that, while still suffocating the birds, kills poultry more quickly and is preferred over ventilation shutdown by groups including the Humane Society of the United States. USDA spokesperson Andrea McNally did confirm that ventilation shutdown was used in some cases in the rush to euthanize hundreds of thousands of birds on 10 commercial farms in Indiana before the virus spread.
"There are more humane ways to mass euthanize poultry than intentionally causing heat stroke, which is absolutely a horrible way to die," said HSUS's chief veterinary officer Michael Blackwell in a press release. "Ventilation shutdown should only be considered as an absolute last resort, and not the first response to an outbreak."
Killing the birds quickly, within that 24 hour window, is important. Last year, without these protocols in place, 49 million birds had to be killed as the virus spread like wildfire.
"These rapid depopulation goals were set to stop virus amplification and widespread transmission, which would result in far greater numbers of animals being destroyed," McNally explained in an email.
No new cases have been reported since January 16, McNally told me, so the mass slaughter seems to have worked effectively. And there are some challenges with the foam method, too: "Frigid temperatures did make the use of water-based foam difficult in some locations," McNally said.
But with nearly half a million birds spread over just 10 farms, some question whether this gruesome end could have been avoided through fundamental changes in the food production industry.
"At these operations, if one bird gets sick, they're all going to get sick. It's like being in a nursing home," said Rob Rader, a farmer in Virginia who raises turkeys part of the year.
Rader—who raises about 75 turkeys per year on pasture at his 25-acre farm—argued that the industrial farming model puts animals not only at a higher risk for disease, but also necessitates higher losses and more drastic slaughtering techniques.
"When you get those birds into an area that's totally negated of fresh air, sunshine, or light, they have no immune system," Rader said. "If you had a smaller flock, with more farmers, on grass, suddenly the impact wouldn't be so bad. If they got sick, instead of 1,000 birds, you may only lose 10. All of sudden, that's manageable."
Rader said his style of farming does increase the cost of food, but believes it's a more sustainable option and said outbreaks like avian influenza only highlight the pitfalls of the industrialized system. As we move into the colder months, the risk for avian influenza increases, according to the USDA. If more cases emerge, groups like the HSUS and farmers like Rader will be watching closely to see if ventilation shutdown is truly a last resort, or if it becomes the norm for killing infected birds en masse.