The Field Report: A Deadly Bird Flu Resurfaces | Civil Eats

The Field Report: A Deadly Bird Flu Resurfaces

Plus, new data on pesticide exposure, the USDA’s first Equity Commission, and organic fashion fraud.

a bird infected with avian bird flu looks ominously down

Welcome to The Field Report, our weekly round-up of easy-to-digest stories. Each week, we’ll provide you with the perspective, analysis, and context you need to make sense of the most important food system news coming out of Washington, D.C. and around the country. Email lisa@civileats.com with tips.

Cases of bird flu—or highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI)—were discovered in poultry flocks in three different states this week, raising concerns about the spread of the virus across the U.S. Like COVID-19, HPAI is a zoonotic disease, and it can wipe out chicken and turkey flocks—and be deadly when it spreads to humans (which happens only rarely).

Thankfully, no individual in the U.S has ever been infected, even during the worst poultry outbreak in 2014 and 2015. During that stretch, farmers in several states killed about 50 million chickens, most of them on commercial egg farms. HPAI was last detected in a South Carolina turkey flock in the spring of 2020.

This time, the same lethal strain of HPAI—H5N1—has been found in a commercial flock of 29,000 turkeys in Indiana and a flock of 240,000 commercial chickens being raised for Tyson in Kentucky. HPAI was also detected in a backyard chicken flock in Virginia. State officials said the flocks were being killed to control the spread, and poultry companies increased security measures such as canceling visits to farms. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it’s working with state partners to test commercial flocks in the areas where the virus has been found while also stepping up its surveillance of HPAI in wild birds, to “increase our capability to track the disease throughout the United States.”

Because HPAI initially spreads from wild birds to chickens and turkeys on farms, poultry industry representatives argue that industrial farms that keep animals inside are safer, since they limit the farm animals’ contact with wildlife. But outside experts have long warned that poultry production in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) creates the perfect environment for dangerous flu viruses to spread and mutate. Chickens or turkeys are crowded together in barns, and their immune systems are weakened by stress and rapid growth.

“If I was trying to design a way to spread a pathogen—whether it’s bacteria or a virus—our modern farming [systems] would be the best way to do that,” Gail Hansen, the former state epidemiologist and public health veterinarian for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, told Civil Eats in 2020. “They can spread things among each other pretty fast, and . . . that’s when mutations are likely to happen.” And while bird-to-human transmission is rare and people have so far been spared infection in the U.S, H5N1 has infected about 700 people in other countries, primarily in Asia, since 2003, and 60 percent of them died. It does not appear to spread efficiently from human to human.

Since the 2014–2015 outbreak, the USDA has sharpened its surveillance and control system, but the world also has new knowledge and lived experience around just how unpredictable viruses can be. That could direct a new level of attention to the situation as it develops.

Read More:
Could Large Livestock Operations Cause the Next Pandemic?
How Will Bird Flu Affect Backyard Poultry?

Chemical Concerns. In a study published this week in the journal Environmental Health, researchers at George Washington University found that human exposure to a weed killer associated with various health concerns increased as more farmers used the herbicide. The researchers used data collected from a representative sample of Americans between 2001 and 2014. About one-third of the people in the sample had detectable levels of 2,4-D in their urine, and the frequency of exposure rose from 17 percent in 2001 to almost 40 percent a decade later, as the use of 2,4-D increased. The results were particularly significant because the odds that exposure to the herbicide, which is thought to be part of a class of chemicals linked to developmental and reproductive risks, would increase were twice as high for children compared to adults and women of childbearing age compared to men.

Meanwhile, chlorpyrifos—a pesticide that poses risks that are much more clear—also made news this week. After a long battle, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officially banned the use of chlorpyrifos last August, stating that its use was not safe, especially due to its potential to cause neurodevelopmental damage in children. Now, a coalition of 21 agricultural groups, including the American Soybean Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, are suing to overturn the ban.

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Read More:
5 Things to Know About 2,4-D
The Ban on Chlorpyrifos and the Power of Community Organizing

Equity at USDA. Just a little over a year after President Biden directed federal agencies to take various steps to advance racial equity within their offices and programs, the USDA announced the 15 members of its first Equity Commission and a subcommittee on agriculture. Representatives of the United Farm Workers, National Young Farmers Coalition, National Black Growers Council, and the Native American Agriculture Fund will serve on the commission, among others. Notably, Shirley Sherrod, who Tom Vilsack fired amid controversy during his first run as Secretary of Agriculture, is also joining. The Commission will hold its first meeting on February 28. Some see the commission as little more than window dressing, since the USDA’s history of discrimination against farmers of color is already well-documented, while others think it may signal a step toward real change. There will also continue to be pressure on the USDA from other angles: The House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee hosted a hearing this week to question agency officials about oversight of civil rights complaints. According to a September 2021 audit presented at the hearing, USDA took an average of 630 days—nearly two years—to process those complaints between October 2016 and June 2019.

Read More:
Black Farmers Still Await Debt Relief Amid Racist Lawsuits
Black Farmers Say They Were Dropped from the USDA’s Food Box Program

Organic Fashion Fraud? While organic farmers and companies in the U.S. have been working to curb the import of fraudulent grains and close loopholes that they say erode trust in the organic label, fraud has apparently been thriving in another, related industry. According to a New York Times investigation published this week, a large percentage of so-called organic cotton used by fashion brands, most of which comes from India, is not actually grown organically. Reporters also found that farmers who are committed to organic practices are typically paid less for their crops compared to conventional cotton farmers in the country, even though organic clothing is sold at a premium.

Read More:
What Is the Future of Organic?
USDA Moves Forward With Sweeping Plan to Prevent Fraud in Organics

Prices and Profits. Many scary headlines this week communicated the Consumer Price Index’s report that the U.S. inflation rate was 7.5 percent over the past 12 months, the highest it’s been in 40 years. However, some analysts expressed optimism that the rate has already peaked and leveled off and will continue to decline in the coming months. Whatever the economic forecast, the data showed one of the drivers of high prices has been the cost of meat at the supermarket. Meat prices rose nearly 14 percent overall, while bacon prices went up 18 percent over the past year. Those prices may be hurting the average American food shopper, but meat companies are cleaning up: In the fourth quarter of 2021, Tyson’s operating income was up 40 percent, with double-digit increases in both its profits and sales.

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Read More:
Just a Few Companies Control the Meat Industry. Can a New Approach to Monopolies Level the Playing Field?
Major Meat Corporations Pay Millions to Settle Price-Fixing Suits

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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