Are factory farm birds safer than outdoor birds?

April 2006

I am really concerned about avian flu. I know that it has not yet come to the United States but we buy most of our chicken and eggs from a local farmer who keeps his birds outside. Generally, I would never think to ask this, but are factory farm birds actually safer than outdoor birds?

Anne Mitchell
Raleigh, NC

I think avian flu is on all of our minds right now. This is a very serious issue and with new media reports almost everyday it has been hard to keep up to date on all of the developments. Farmers and consumers alike are scrambling to answer a wide variety of questions as the cases get closer and closer to home. To answer your question about what poultry products are the most safe, I think we need to start with the debate on how this particular strain of avian flu, H5N1, travels and spreads. It even goes to the larger question: What are the inherent dangers of a globalized food system?

It is important to be clear that this is a highly contentious issue and experts across the world do not agree on even the basics of this disease. The crux of the issue lies in how the disease is spread. If you have been watching the papers or television news chances are you have heard about the theory that migratory birds may be responsible for the spread of H5N1. However, there also seems to be strong evidence that points to the consolidated poultry industry for a significant role in this possible pandemic. As we go along, you will see how intricately linked this conflict is with the future and integrity of small farmers like the one that raises your meat and eggs.

It is indisputable that some wild birds, particularly waterfowl, have tested positive for H5N1 and that others may carry this disease without displaying symptoms. However, nearly all the birds that have tested positive have been dead, which limits their ability to spread the virus, and despite significant testing of live birds, researchers have yet to produce positive results testing live birds. I guess what I mean to say here is that the sick birds are dying and not traveling the world spreading the disease around. So, it may be the case that an errant migratory bird introduced this virus to a domestic poultry flock but more evidence for further contamination points to man-made intervention.

Keep in mind, this very strain of avian flu has been around since 1959. However, the most recent mutations that have made the virus capable of jumping from species to species occurred in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, where there has been an eightfold jump in poultry production over the past three decades. This increase in production is the result of the development of large, integrated factory farms, which are concentrated outside most major cities. Once the virus is introduced to a confinement operation, the basic strain is able to evolve into the much more pathogenic form that we are dealing with today.

Furthermore, scientists who have tracked the sequence of outbreaks of H5N1 over the past few years see that the virus travels along trade routes, from city to city, rather than along the established patterns of bird migration. Rather than continue in the abstract, there are actually a number of pretty compelling examples that clarify the role of confinement operations and the integrated poultry industry in this context.

An excellent example that illustrates the link between confinement operations and the spread/mutation of this virus is the country of Laos. In Laos, almost 90% of the total poultry production is done on small, independent, outdoor farms - a fact that theoretically would leave this region wide open to exposure to H5N1 from migratory birds. However, the country has been unaffected compared to other Asian countries. There have been a total of 45 outbreaks and 42 of them have occurred in confinement operations. On top of that, the country practically stamped out the disease, not by bringing the remaining birds inside, but by closing the trade borders and culling commercial operations. So as you can see, the controversy over how the disease is spread is intricately linked to our understanding both of how to prevent major outbreaks and how to keep poultry farming and consumption safe. However, this example has not been widely analyzed by mainstream media.

The following countries have all implemented some form of ban on outdoor poultry operations in the name of safety: Austria, Canada, China, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam. These bans on outdoor poultry operations further complicate matters because the cost of implementing indoor systems has driven some farmers out of business almost instantly and has endangered the organic certification of others.

While we have often looked to countries in the European Union for family farm friendly policies, it is clear that in the case of avian flu, industry lobbyists won the ear of government.

It is in the best interest of the multinational poultry industry for consumers to buy the migratory bird theory because it supports their claim that indoor confinement operations are safer than traditional outdoor flocks. However, proponents of small farmers (I would include Farm Aid in this category) argue that small outdoor flocks are less susceptible because they have greater genetic diversity and stronger immune systems than their indoor relatives. Also, from a pragmatic point of view, if a small flock were to be infected the disease would die out quickly rather than spreading and mutating as has happened in the confinement operations of Asia, Africa, and the European Union.

As you can see, there are advantages to continuing to support your current producer. So long as your local farmer is taking care to grow and process his products attentively and you are cooking your meat and eggs properly, chances are you are still getting a better product that you would from a factory farm. Keep in mind, no cases have made their way to the United States yet but if they do, this farmer that you have been supporting will need your help. It really boils down to local food systems versus one globalized system and we know that it will take massive consumer support for local farmers to keep your food system local in the United States.

This is a huge issue and I am trying to keep on top of the details, so stay tuned for updates. Here are some other resources you might be interested in:

Don't forget to e-mail me with your food and farm questions -

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