Made in Minnesota
From the outside, the headquarters of the Cankor Health Group resembles a garage. The interior is modeled after an industrial poultry factory. The lobby is a dank, low-ceilinged concrete chamber. Upon entering, employees and visitors are asked to ingest a small capsule…The fast-acting drug produces a series of vivid hallucinations. –Ben Katchor (2013)
Industrial turkey and chicken in Minnesota, and other states Midwest and South, have been hit by a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza A (H5N2). Millions of birds have been killed by the virus or culled in an effort to control the outbreak.
The epizootic began with a soft opening, hitting a handful of backyard farms and wild birds in December in Washington and Oregon before spreading east. Suddenly in early March, H5N2 wiped out 15,000 turkeys on an industrial farm in Pope County, Minnesota, the first of what would be nearly 9 million birds and counting killed or culled across 108 farms over 23 counties.
The virus would spill over into turkeys in North and South Dakota, the chicken egg belt along northern Iowa, industrial turkeys and chickens in Wisconsin, and down the Mississippi to concentrations of Cargill poultry in Missouri and northwestern Arkansas.
Twenty-one thousand turkeys in Otter Tail County. Forty-five thousand in Meeker County. Fifty-thousand in Kandiyohi. Fifty-six thousand in Redwood. Sixty-seven thousand in Stearns. Another 76,000 in Stearns. One hundred and twenty seven thousand on a Hormel farm in Western Wisconsin.
Another 152,000 in Kandiyohi, whose outbreak has since expanded to 40 separate farms. One million plus hens in Nicollet County owned by Michael Foods, a division of Post Holdings. Nearly four million hens in Osceda County in Iowa, just south of Worthington, Minnesota. Five-and-a-half million birds at Rembrandt Enterprises in Buena Vista County, Iowa, owned by Star Tribune owner Glen Taylor (which may account for the newspaper’s coverage of the outbreak for better and for worse). And on and on.
H5N2 has proved extremely deadly. Farmers report an eerie quiet. The birds cough. Their eyes run. They lose their appetite. Diarrhea ensues. The virus takes two to four days to wipe out a barn. Infected layers meanwhile stop laying eggs or lay eggs with weak and misshapen shells.
The virus alone wiped out 99% of the birds on that first Pope Country turkey farm. On a second farm, the virus killed all 22,000 turkeys in one of three barns.
Minnesota is the country’s largest turkey producer. According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the USDA, as of 2012, the state produced 47 million turkeys, 42 million chicken broilers, and 13 million layers, laying 3 billion chicken eggs. Its poultry sector accounts for $2 billion a year in sales.
Upon announcement of the first outbreaks in Minnesota, 40 countries banned Minnesota turkey imports.
There appears, then, a strong economic compulsion to protect the sector at all costs, including blaming everything other than the industrial model for the outbreak: wild birds, smallholders, farm workers, the weather, the wind, flies and rodents. The yellow peril of ‘Asia’ is repeatedly blamed as if influenza reassortment somehow isn’t global at this point by both overlapping flyways and intercontinental live animal trade.
Surely the outbreak needs to be stopped, if it doesn’t burn out on its own, a dubious hope. But the bipartisan nature of the government’s response also speaks to the state’s prime directives. The fate, and certainly fortune, of the poultry sector reverberates down the hierarchy of state agencies and university research units responsible for responding to the outbreak.
Indeed, the ideological engine protecting Big Poultry, defined by six defining characteristics, lurched into action right off the first outbreak.
The first characteristic is one of dismissal and denial. According to turkey farmer John Zimmerman, “We never expected [bird flu] to jump to the Western Hemisphere.” Once H5N2 hit the Northwest, “we thought it wouldn’t cross the Rocky Mountains.”
“We think the lid is on, but we are concerned about the possibility of spread,” said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.
Carol Cardona, a veterinary professor at the University of Minnesota, took a step further, noting the loss of only one of three barns on the second farm as a good sign, “I don’t think it will spread between turkey flocks.”
Only weeks later, with H5N2 splattered across the state, Cardona would revise her expert opinion for the Minnesota House Committee on Agriculture that once the virus emerges in waterfowl population–note it’s the wild birds’ fault–it can persist three to five years.
By late April Cardona had walked her views further back, “We are really in research mode. There’s a bunch of stuff we don’t know.”
Conflating frequency and impact, Alicia Fry of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases claimed person-to-person infection of any H5 strain extremely rare. One of the dangers of influenza, however, is that it evolves. Given enough opportunities—millions of birds already—a rare possibility, repeated over multiple reassortants, bends toward inevitability, whether that be H5N2 or another of the many circulating strains.
“This virus gives no indications that it would do that,” Fry adds, as if she can predict the virus’s course.
Simon Shane, a poultry industry consultant and adjunct professor of poultry science and veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University, a conflict of titles, proclaimed the year’s failure a grand success.
Shane claimed the salmonella protections instituted in 2011 “caused the industry to upgrade biosecurity, and I believe inadvertently their salmonella rule has helped with protection of the egg industry against viral diseases like avian influenza.” And yet a nationwide outbreak that sickened thousands of Americans in 2010 following two decades over which agribusiness blocked federal implementation of egg safety rules appears in actuality to have done little to prevent the deaths of 38 million chickens this round, 29 million in Iowa alone.
“I do not believe we will have a wholesale mass uncontrollable outbreak of influenza,” Shane would say of a wholesale mass uncontrollable outbreak of influenza.
Second, conflating farm size and security, industry spokesmen and their colleagues in the state’s veterinary services repeatedly essentialize the protection intensive production embodies. Big farms are by definition safe farms,
“Jennie-O Turkey Store raises its turkeys in barns to protect them from inclement weather, predators, and migratory birds, which are a common source of influenza viruses,” Hormel reported. “While turkey raised in barns aren’t resistant to influenza infection, they are at a reduced risk of becoming exposed to the virus.”
And yet, in contrast to the hundreds of intensive operations hit nationally, only twelve cases of backyard birds infected were reported, five of which struck in Washington state back in January and February.
In one of the few pieces to clear an apparent media blockade, Ortonville farmer Rebecca White notes that thirteen backyard flocks in Lac qui Parle County tested negative as did thirty backyard flocks in Pope.
She follows through with the obvious implications,
Instead of racing to plug gaps in the existing system, maybe it’s time to question the system itself. Raising thousands of birds (or cows, or hogs) in the confined space may be considered “efficient,” but it results in a high-stress environment that sets out the welcome mat for disease, as well as concentrating waste in a way that pollutes rather than enriches…What if, instead of being the state that produces the most turkeys, we became the state that produced the best turkeys.
For obvious reasons, researchers whose programs are paid for by the industry didn’t like that suggestion. And there may be something in their objection, if only in the specifics of the ongoing outbreak. The backyard season is only beginning and free-range turkeys may still be vulnerable, regardless of their diet and cross-immunity to multiple pathogens.
On the other hand, should backyard birds die en masse, industrial poultry would score no free pass. In many other bird flu outbreaks globally, the virulence to poultry, and indeed even blown back to waterfowl, developed only after the virus passed through industrial farms.
Industry scientists at the University of Minnesota have since pivoted off that argument to one in which the size and economic organization of farms hit shouldn’t matter, erasing all causality save, ironically, the sector’s financial margins.
Montserrat Torremorell, a professor of veterinary medicine, told the Star Tribune the state’s response should only be about plugging gaps,
“To me, it’s a discussion of how do we manage the food supply to decrease the risk,” not just for disease, but for the industry’s bottom line and the stability of the food system as well, said Torremorell.
The critical question, she said, is not how animals are raised, but how they are protected from disease–whether they are free-range, organic or from larger operations. All domestic poultry is vulnerable to these diseases, she said.
A third manifestation of the ideological infrastructure protecting Big Poultry, the identities of the initial Pope farm and all those subsequently hit in Minnesota are never revealed.
A 2005 state law, addressing agribusiness concerns about ‘privacy’ and the threat of animal rights activists, exempts “animal premises data” from the open records law. The law is modeled after federal efforts providing viruses, in this age of a NSA off the leash, more privacy than the humans the government ostensibly represents.
There is a loophole, however, James Shiffer writes,
The law does allow the Board of Animal Health to release the farm data to the public ‘if the board determines that the access will aid in the law enforcement process or the protection of public or animal health or safety.’ The board has shared the information with other agencies and adjoining property owners, but ‘an argument has not been made that we need to disclose it to the public,’ said Beth Thompson, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health’s assistant director.
A curious turn of phrase on Thompson’s part, citing a statement that hasn’t been made–or rather, given Shiffer’s column, heard–as due cause against releasing the data. But clearly there is a discretion built into the albeit terrible law health officials repeatedly spurn in favor of the argument their hands are conveniently tied.
Thompson, modeling an apparent talking point that has spread across state and industry functionaries, including among others Ed Ehlinger and Randy Olson, goes on that “we haven’t seen any humans coming down with the virus…We’ve also not seen it spreading barn to barn.”
Schiffer responds to Thompson that
At a time when agencies are mobilizing and hundreds of thousands of birds are being slaughtered, it’s hard to see how the public is served by this secrecy. If this isn’t a situation where the board should disclose what farms are affected, I don’t know what is.
The public may not be served, but agribusiness sure is. Indeed, in the face of the talking point and Thompson’s sang froid, 101 farm workers were placed under observation as of mid-April and the state recommended 93 take preventative Tamiflu. Seventy-three did. Clearly the state is concerned about a human-to-human infection emerging.
In ways industry-funded scientists have not, more practically minded industry officials have meanwhile moved past the notion it’s all wild birds. As reported by CIDRAP,
John Brunquell, president of Egg Innovations, Port Washington, Wis., which owns 60 farms, said, “We believe all these infections you’re hearing about now are from facility to facility” and that migratory waterfowl are no longer the main vehicle for the virus.
In an age when influenza samples are increasingly labeled by GPS coordinates, national policy, followed by additional protocols at the state level, is organized around reducing geographic resolution for independent scientists and the public alike.
The official blanket extends to photographs of the present outbreak. I have found several shots of piles of dead birds onsite in Iowa, but not a single photo here in Minnesota.
At best, it took the Star Tribune to photograph the perimeter of a barn on its own–a farm it still refused to name–just up the Sauk River near Melrose, with a sign, “KEEP OUT. Disease control.”
In my decade studying bird flu, I have never seen such control exercised on coverage of an outbreak, including in China, whose post-SARS media regularly print photos of infected birds and their disposal. Think about that.
Fourth, the industry has circled the barns to blame anyone and everyone else for the outbreak regardless of its epidemiology.
While migratory waterfowl are a reservoir for multiple reassortants, the repeated focus begs the question. Does it matter waterfowl are the ultimate source? It certainly doesn’t wash out the poultry sector’s responsibility for the virus’s case fatality rates on industrial farms.
Perhaps the suggestion that causality need extend into what drives virulence explains officials’ tautological treatment of waterfowl input. T.J. Myers, associate deputy administrator in veterinary services for the USDA made this cogent observation, “When you look at a map, you see a lot of turkey farms in Minnesota. When you look at a map of Minnesota, you also see a lot of lakes.”
There may be something in this gem other than what Myers intended, however.
Wetlands, under enormous pressure worldwide, have traditionally served as Anatidae migration stops. As we’ve described elsewhere, a growing literature shows many migratory birds have responded to the destruction of their natural habitat. Geese, for example, display an alarming behavioral plasticity, adopting entirely new migratory patterns and nesting in new types of wintering grounds, moving from deteriorating wetlands to food-filled farms. Wintering lesser snow geese, for instance, switched from wetlands along the Gulf Coast developed out of existence to foraging on the great expanse of Midwest agriculture as far north as Minnesota.
In 2013 the Environmental Working Group issued a report, echoing other analyses, showing precipitous declines in available wetlands across the Prairie Pothole Region as these are drained and plowed for new agricultural land.
The EWG map overlaps with many of the initial counties first hit by H5N2 across Minnesota and North Dakota. We needn’t repeat Myers’s stumble over correlation and causality, but the overlay suggests a mechanism by which the interface between wild waterfowl and poultry has increased in the region, a shift for which agribusiness appears responsible on both ends.
In a fascinating development, the attempt to blame migratory waterfowl has been subjected to a subtle but not indirect pushback, including from colleagues who share the same departmental affiliations as researchers pushing the story for their industrial sponsors.
As of late April, 2200 Minnesota samples across wild birds tested negative. The USDA reported no environmental fecal samples from waterfowl positive for HPAI H5N2 across the country. Nationally, fifty waterfowl have tested positive, mostly mallards, but also geese.
One Cooper’s hawk was found H5N2-positive in Minnesota, a result somehow presented as explanation enough, but as Pat Redig of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center clarified, the hawk was killed hitting a window and not by the virus. The Raptor Center has since tested live eagles, owls, hawks and falcons and found no flu.
Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the Department of Natural Resources, bent the results toward a broader implication, telling the Star Tribune that the virus spreads quickly in confined flocks, but wild bird populations such as raptors and wild turkeys aren’t as vulnerable because they are dispersed, a roundabout way of turning the focus back on industrial poultry.
Cornicelli would continue in Minnesota Nice noting the discovery of the Cooper’s hawk doesn’t indicate the virus in wild birds is the direct cause of the bird flu. Ostensibly he’s referring to where the virus has been found. Yellow Medicine County, where the hawk was discovered, hasn’t hosted a single poultry outbreak.
Fifth, calls for increasing biosecurity were broadcasted right from the first outbreak. We’re talking changing clothes and boots, disinfecting equipment and vehicles, different farm workers for different barns, and refraining from storing feed outdoors as spilled feed could attract wild birds.
The latter intervention cops to the increasing interface between waterfowl and poultry.
And yet despite the forewarning months in advance, the outbreak has burned through the Midwest and beyond. That tells us that H5N2 has cracked the code of industrial poultry here in Minnesota and continues to spread even as the industry was fully appraised and its response operationalized.
It tells us no level of biosecurity is apparently secure enough, as has long been raised in the literature, however much it may have helped individual farmers. Proposals to protect against fomites carrying flu would require barn filters at a cost beyond the margins the sector is willing to dedicate to biosecurity.
It tells us, contrary to Torremorell’s wishful thinking, that the model of production is the heart of the problem. And the industry, if not its scientists, knows this.
We need only look at how the industry is structured. Contrary to the prevalent notion, industrial poultry is not totally vertically integrated. All nodes are integrated save, largely, growing out the birds. That’s offloaded onto contract farmers who, as employees, must take out millions in loans to buy the land, barns, equipment, and other inputs to raise the birds to company specifications.
Why? Because decades ago agribusinesses calculated actual farming a losing proposition. It represents a severe diseconomy of scale. Raising birds in huge monocultures of 50,000 turkeys or 250,000 chickens per barn is entirely too precarious. The birds too often get sick and die, from infectious disease and stress morbidities. So the companies are using the contract farmers and their debts as trap crops by which to sop up the costs of such dysfunctional production. With the help of the banking sector, the costs are moved off the industry’s balance sheets and onto contractors.
Indeed, we see here, while the USDA is covering the costs of culling birds—another externalized cost taxpayers must bear—farmers, with no insurance available, are stuck with the direct costs of birds killed by H5N2. There are too the indirect costs farmers must bear with their barns out of commission for the 28 days of composting to which dead birds must be subjected (and subsequently sold as crop fertilizer). Barns must lay empty for an additional 21 days before they can be repopulated and brought back into production.
With their loan payments still on the clock–outbreak or no–farmers are so desperate they’ve requested the second half of composting be allowed outside to free up their barns earlier. Economics before epidemiology.
The virus, however, cares little about the econometric measures, our sixth characteristic, companies have spun out of thin air, tethering poultry and people alike. Gate prices, throughput, sales value, profits per bird, and on and on, are a semantics by which our economy is separated from the ecology in which it is embedded. With real world consequences supply and demand can’t address.
The one constituency to which regional agribusiness appears responsive is that of market analysts, whose pronouncements can send stocks tumbling.
During a May conference call with a group of the new priesthood, Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger appeared nigh on solicitous. He responded with a level of detail if not candor neither media nor public elicits. After 310,000 turkeys were killed at a Hormel farm in Meeker County, the company refused to make any executive available for media comment.
When one analyst asked if the company is considering geographically diversifying turkey production, Ettinger responded,
Given this unprecedented and rare incident, it’s kind of exposed a little bit of an Achilles heel to the strategy of being centralized. We are still in the triage mode right now, and I guess that [geographic diversification] is something on a strategic long-term basis I will be talking with the team about…But it is a valid question.”
That begs if the outbreak is “unprecedented and rare” why Hormel need consider moving turkey out of Minnesota. But setting that dissonance aside, Ettinger’s reply certainly puts to question the solidarity between state and capital at the heart of the epidemiological response.
To protect a $265.6-billion-a-year industry, the poultry sector and regulators across the U.S. have laid blame upon poultry workers and wild waterfowl. H5N2, however, demonstrates the sector is defined by inherent diseconomies of scale it survives solely by externalizing costs to consumers, workers, governments and the environment. In a market economy, such costs, moved back onto company margins, would end the industry as we know it.
But apparently what’s best for Hormel isn’t necessarily about what’s best for the state, whatever the lengths to which the latter goes for the former. At this point, no worker-environmentalist alliance building a better food landscape is driving business out. The companies themselves see the virus made in Minnesota and moving out an economic necessity.
I gave a talk on the H5N2 outbreak at the Institute on Agriculture and Trade Policy June 11. A vid of the half-hour talk can be found here.