WAYNE CREED: How to Bring Avian Flu to Northampton

Cape Charles Wave Columnist

June 15, 2015

As Northampton County continues to grapple with the ramifications of the proposed zoning changes, still lurking in the shadows is the subtle opening of the door for the poultry industry, including CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations), as well as chicken litter waste incinerators. Having less available expansion options left on the northern Delmarva, the industry finally hopes to gain a foothold in Northampton County.

While the special, and even conflicted, interests continued to gather in the back rooms of Northampton to plot their next moves in efforts to make the county “more profitable” through proposed zoning changes, it was reported in the New York Times by Stephanie Strom that the deadly avian flu had struck some of the largest egg operations in the Midwest where millions of chickens will have to be euthanized.

The Center Fresh Group, a top U.S. egg producer must kill (using carbon dioxide or foam) and dispose of about 5.5 million laying hens housed in 26 metal barns on their property. For the last month, the daily ritual of the Agriculture Department has become to report how many more hens must be destroyed. On extreme days, the number can be several million. In Iowa, where a good bit of all eggs originate (including liquid egg products), nearly 40% of the egg laying hens have been affected by the flu.

This is creating a monstrous disposal problem, as carcasses have filled barns; poultry farmers have been pleading for state and federal assistance to deal the disposal effort, as “workers in masks and hazmat gear attempt to clear the barns.” Part of the issue is the way the battery hens are crammed in, with the battery cages stacked on top of each other, usually filling almost every square inch, top to bottom, of the barns.


The technology used at modern egg farms (able to cram so many birds into a small space) has complicated the disposal effort; some producers are attempting to compost dead birds on site. Although this is generally a common practice for disposing of deceased chickens, laying hens culled as part of controlling the avian flu outbreak cannot be handled this way, “nor can they be composted inside the barns where they lived, which is how infected turkeys are being handled for the most part.” In most cases, producers would euthanize hens and “grind their carcasses for use in pet food.” (Once hens are no longer able to produce eggs, they usually end up in the grinder.)

Although one theory is that the flu reached the U.S. via Pacific migratory bird patterns, no one is exactly sure. However, it is easily inferred that if these birds had not been kept in such wretched conditions, forced into unhealthy proximity, and weren’t kept from breathing open air and feeling the sun (able to reap those physical and spiritual benefits), the disease may not have spread so easily.

As Northampton ponders the inclusion of chicken houses as a by-right use, the events in the Midwest should give us pause. Although we may never reach the volume seen in Iowa, another event in Stanislaus County, California, may provide more insight into what we’re really getting into. A court hearing took place last month which attempted to determine whether a chicken cruelty case should go forward. At issue is whether the owner and manager of A&L Poultry in Turlock, California, purposely deprived 50,000 hens of food to force them to molt their feathers and temporarily stop laying eggs, or whether the hens were simply abandoned and not fed.

Under natural conditions, chickens molt when daylight hours shorten during the winter months; during the molt (old feathers fall off, and new ones grow), egg laying stops. Since the birds cannot produce new feathers and lay eggs at the same time, this process provides the hen’s egg laying system with a much needed respite. Back in the day, due to the molt, eggs were a seasonal item, and folks expected fewer, if any, eggs during the winter. The industry has adapted, as egg producers now manage chickens and the molt in a severely controlled environment. The hens never go outside and feel actual sunlight, but instead spend all their time in cramped cages, with low, reddish light meant to set off the egg laying response. The operations have several flocks, which they rotate in and out using forced molting.

How do you get thousands of hens to molt at the same time? The industry terms it “dietary restriction” or “dietary stress” but what that really means is two weeks of starvation. As the growers dim down the lights to simulate the winter months, they also begin reducing, or even stop feeding the hens (some have turned to “nutrient deprivation,” holding back vital vitamins and minerals to fool the hens into thinking they are starving without “really” starving them). It is estimated that during a false molt, the farm can expect to lose close to 2% of the flock. It should be noted that in the U.S., 75% or more of egg producers rely on this type of operation. While you’re enjoying those scrambled eggs in the heart of winter, you may want to reflect on just how you now have that ability.

Rewind back to A&L Poultry in Turlock: If it is determined that the hens were force molted, then the owner and manager would not be guilty of animal cruelty under California statutes (since the practice is considered standard). Similarly, if the hens were not fed for several days because they were going to slaughterhouses and gas chambers as “spent” hens, this too is a standard industry practice and therefore legal. But if it can be shown that these hens were just left to starve in their cages, the pair could be prosecuted for animal cruelty.

The Woman’s World Cup of soccer isn’t the only interesting thing happening in Canada right now. It was announced earlier this month in a bill by the province of Quebec that animals will no longer be considered “property,” but instead “sentient beings.” The wording of the legislation formally states that “animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs.”

The legislation proposed by Agriculture Minister Pierre Paradis is pushing for fines of up to $250,000, as well as jail time for repeat offenders. The act will cover all animals, including farm animals such as chickens, cows, and pigs. Paradis said he wants to see animals “treated with dignity as much as possible.”

It is certainly easy to draw a distinction between the Quebec animal legislation and what we see going on in Northampton County. There is something fundamentally and spiritually missing from a zoning proposal that not only will devastate our water quality, wetlands, and overall environmental character, but also gives tacit approval to the cruelty and abuse of sentient creatures. Although the concern for the rural quality of life, water quality, and property values is very real, unless the starting point for the opposition to CAFOs is an adamant rejection of the process my friend Karen Davis terms “farmed animal concentration and killing centers,” that opposition may never have the ethical and moral weight to withstand rhetorical scrutiny. That is, if you consume animal products, be it meat, eggs or dairy, you are providing tacit approval to the industry and its practices. To say it’s okay, just not in my backyard, may not be enough to ever keep a CAFO from being your neighbor.



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