United Poultry Concerns January 31, 2002

California and Nevada Use Questionable Tactics to Battle Newcastle Disease


The battle against Exotic Newcastle Disease (END) in U.S. poultry has taken a turn for the worse as the disease, previously found only in Southern California, has spread to Nevada where federal workers have started destroying birds as part of a preventative eradication program.

The disease has already devastated the bird population of Southern California. As a result, the governor has declared a state of emergency and has imposed extraordinary measures to prevent the spread to more northern counties, such as Merced and Fresno, where some of the state's biggest poultry producers are located. California officials have also instituted a ban on the movement of poultry in several Southern California counties and have launched a survey to check the health of so-called "backyard" flocks.

Initially, this highly virulent disease had been found in only backyard flocks, but has since spread to six commercial flocks. As a result, the state has killed more than 1.7 million birds, including an estimated 82,000 backyard birds.

"While this battle to eradicate the disease through mass slaughter continues, the primary focus will be the economic value of poultry and poultry products and the effect of this disease on international trade," says Tamiko Thomas, an animal scientist and program manager with the Farm Animals and Sustainable Agriculture section of The HSUS. "What will receive much less attention is the welfare of the millions of birds that have been slaughtered and what it is about modern agriculture that predisposes it to problems of this sort."

END is a highly contagious and fatal viral disease that affects all species of birds. The disease affects the respiratory, digestive, and nervous system. Symptoms include sneezing, gasping, nasal discharge, greenish, watery diarrhea, muscular tremors, drooping wings, swelling of the head, and complete paralysis. END is so virulent birds can die without showing any clinical signs.

State and federal animal health officials are attempting to eradicate END by destroying all infected flocks. What's more, the emergency declaration means they can also destroy flocks as a preventative measure. It's unclear yet whether there's a more bird friendly way to deal with this emergency.

"This kind of mass eradication has already been tried in California in the 1970s when END was found," Thomas says. "Before the disease was finally halted, some 12 million birds had been slaughtered over three years, at a cost of $56 million."

The Meating Place, an online industry newsletter, acknowledges that the eradication program even causes people in the industry to pick sides: "There is an emerging rift between knowledgeable egg-industry veterinarians who favor quarantine, limited depletion and intensified vaccination, and regulatory veterinarians, who are pursuing a 'traditional' program of detection and slaughter."

What's clear, however, is that competition and an emphasis on cheap food have driven the concentration of the poultry industry to the point where a million birds can be found on a single factory farm. This concentration has made industrial agriculture vulnerable to the spread of disease, and hence also bioterrorism. Many feel this is threatening the security of our food supply.

While being part of a small flock will not protect birds from contracting Exotic Newcastle Disease, it does lessen the body count. It is difficult for the disease to travel from farm to farm, but once it is found in a flock, the standard veterinary practice is to destroy the entire flock. Because of this approach, the number of birds slaughtered in California has shot up by more than twenty fold, thanks to the disease found in the six commercial flocks.

"This systematic killing of suspect flocks is a rather blunt instrument of eradication and shows little consideration and sensitivity for birds not raised for production but as companions," Thomas notes.

One vocal opponent of the eradication effort is Cherylynn Costner, the President of the Hillary Chicken Memorial Fund, which is a non-profit based in California. Costner helps save domesticated and exotic birds and is concerned for California's companion birds. She feels that this eradication effort is wrongfully protecting the economic interests of a select group of individuals and corporations, the poultry industry, while causing anguish and loss for another group.

Copyright © 2003 The Humane Society of the United States. All rights reserved.

United Poultry Concerns is a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. For more information, go to www.UPC-online.org.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
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(UPC Evaluation of Future Trends In Animal Agriculture Symposium)

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