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Free range chickens and ducks dangerous to humanity

By Dennis T. Avery and Alex A. Avery
web posted April 10, 2006

The evidence is now clear: Free-range chickens and ducks are a major, direct threat to humans worldwide.

Fortunately, we can prevent a massive, global replay of the Spanish flu epidemic that killed perhaps 25 million people in 1918–19 simply by putting the world's poultry into confinement houses.

Despite the protests of the "natural and organic" movement, letting our chickens outdoors encourages the bird flu virus to evolve. That could trigger millions of human deaths if the new H5N1 bird flu virus morphs again into an airborne form that can be transmitted directly between people.

Half of the recent Asian victims of H5N1 have died.

Free-range chicken enthusiasts claim -- loudly and without evidence -- that "factory chicken farms" produced the new bird flu virus. In Thailand, however, officials found that none of its modern, indoor chicken flocks had bird flu. In dramatic contrast, 56 percent of the backyard chickens and 47 percent of the backyard and free-range ducks had the disease.

Historically, modern flu epidemics have come from Asia, apparently for two reasons:

First, Asia still has millions of chickens and ducks raised outdoors, in backyards and village streets where they interact with wild birds and people. That lets the virus pass back and forth among birds, humans -- and even among pigs and cats.

Second, Asia has a huge population of free-range ducks that graze in its rice paddies. Thai officials have recently discovered that ducks can transmit the virus without showing symptoms themselves.

Thai officials initially culled all sick birds, and banned outdoor duck grazing. That produced a one-year lull in the epidemic. Unfortunately, several thousand ducks illegally grazing in rice fields quickly produced a surge of dying chickens across a whole region. Even without any known contact between the ducks and chicken flocks. One person died who worked directly with the chickens.

The flu was first discovered in Chinese geese. Wild birds, especially waterfowl, have now spread the bird flu virus from China, Thailand, and Vietnam to Russia, Turkey, India, and Europe.

It's likely to spread worldwide.

The solution to the bird flu danger? We must put our poultry flocks indoors, where the birds are more comfortable, commit less cannibalism, and have less interaction with people and wild birds.

This obvious precaution has drawn screeches of protest from free range poultry advocates. In Germany, officials rescinded a ban on letting chickens outdoors after such protests -- if the birds were covered by a net.

What a strange ruling. Nets characteristically have holes. What if droppings from wild birds fall through the net? In Thailand, a quarter of the chicken flocks in net-walled open houses were infected.

What possible benefits can outdoor poultry offer that would override the risk of another 25 million human deaths from Spanish flu? There a absolutely no nutritional differences.

Free-range birds have also been found to carry more illness-causing bacteria, such as campylobacter and salmonella. Spread to our kitchen counters, these bacteria are themselves potentially deadly to our kids.

Oddly, many of the advocates who demand that their chicken be raised outdoors spend the vast majority of their own hours inside air-conditioned homes, offices, schools, and cars.

It's time to step around the free-range chicken cult and eliminate the pandemic threat of bird flu. It's time to put the world's poultry flocks indoors.

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director of the Center for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Alex Avery is the Director of Research, Center for Global Food Issues, Hudson Institute. Readers may write them at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

 

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