Business as Unusual

Chicken in a business suit

John Huston told me he and [Orson] Welles were always trying to stick each other with the tab and once faked simultaneous heart attacks at a restaurant in Paris. –Jim Harrison (1988)

Some of you here in the Twin Cities may have noticed this past year the Star Tribune, the Minneapolis paper, has published almost its entire run of articles on the outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 in its business section.

The placement is telling. It reminds us the paper, owned by agribusinessman Glen Taylor, views the virus, killing 50 million poultry across 21 states, as a matter for food companies and investors. It seems the ecologies and epidemiologies in which we are all embedded are to be treated as mere externalities to the matter at hand–the trade in commodities.

An update last week, published–where else?–in the business section, reprinted unsupported declarations about the origins of the outbreak, claims the newspaper turned into facts by year-long repetition. The virus originated in Asia. Migratory waterfowl brought it here and spread it. Farmer error is to blame for the outbreak. Anything but the poultry sector itself.

In January, the Star Tribune reported on a University of Minnesota study funded by Hormel’s Jennie-O division, a funding source the newspaper failed to mention. The study reported Upper Midwest farmers tilling fields near poultry barns, producing clouds of fomites, likely helped spread the H5N2 virus early in the outbreak.

The Center for Animal Health and Food Safety study also statistically indicted the composting of infected birds near barns, the spatial proximity of infected farms, and the presence of truck-washing stations, which, deployed to stop the outbreak, may have helped spread it.

In short, it’s the farmers’ fault (as well as that of the state’s botched cleanup). The problems are found in specific practices on-site.

It’s a conclusion that has led to instituting the “Danish entry” method of biosecurity, wherein farm workers must step into disinfectant, wash their hands, and change into their work clothes before entering the barn. Some farmers, the Star Tribune reports, have built enclosed walkways between barns and bought enough equipment to supply each barn separately.

The possibility the industrial model itself selected for a strain that hit only the region’s largest operations is omitted from the study. The conclusions, if not the specifics, are hardly a surprise as the study’s answers were locked in by its questions:

To identify possible risk factors, the University of Minnesota research team developed a detailed survey that asked turkey farmers questions about the farm and surrounding environment, presence of wild birds, and farm management practices.

The study is honest as far as one accepts its premises. One must start somewhere as it is, and why not with such a preliminary survey? That seems reasonable enough. Setting aside the limits of case-control studies, including this one’s small sample restricted to Jennie-O farms, the analysis is righteous in its albeit simplistic risk modeling.

And yet the study is also corrupt to its metaphysical heart.

If, as reported, spatial proximity represents nearly five times the odds ratio than the next factor, why the undue focus on individual farm practices? What about the size, density, and interconnectedness of monoculture poultry operations arrayed across whole counties? What alternate food models are left out when only Jennie-O farms make up the universe of study samples?

What of the political power agribusiness exercises on local counties, including staffing regulatory agencies? What does it mean to fail to investigate the conceptual premises of your own funding source? What critical scientific investigation is left afield when land grant universities are turned into agribusiness R&D?

In contrast, poultry industries outside the U.S. appear to be turning away from such lucrative obfuscation.

Starting late last November, France’s duck and goose sectors were hit across eighteen southwest departments or subregions by simultaneous outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influnezas H5N1, H5N2, and H5N9.

“It is an unprecedented situation to see the emergence of three different strains in such a short time,” World Organization for Animal Health Director General Bernard Vallat told Reuters. A fourth strain, H5N3, was reported in December in the departments of Landes and Pyrenees-Atlantiques.

French poultry farmers have responded by moving to end industrial production as it has long been practiced. Biosecurity changes along the lines Minnesota poultry farmers have implemented are being pursued but with the understanding such switches, as long recognized in the scientific literature, are insufficient.

Unlike here in the U.S., sector-wide regulation is now also introducing breaks between stock cohorts, for as long as four months, during which farmers are expected to clean out and disinfect their barns.

Many French farmers recognize the painful production loss resulting from such a radical step as a necessary intervention when deadly influenza is acting, as one farmer states, as a “system boundary” for industrial husbandry.

That is, raising so many genetically homogeneous birds so close together both inside barns and across agricultural landscapes is unsustainable. The industrial poultry act as all so much food for deadly flu.

Virulent strains typically burn out when susceptibles die off, but under the industrial model the natural cap on virulence is removed and the thousands of birds available permit such strains to spread unimpeded.

Other French farmers, already just surviving on thin economic margins, are choosing to sell off their operations. For them, the shift–with losses in production and increases in biosecurity investment–is too costly to continue this kind of farming, even should losses be passed onto consumers.

Whichever choices individual farmers in France make, it is widely recognized across the commodity chain there that the industrial model is to blame for avian influenza’s success.

American agribusinesses, the researchers who work for them, and the reporters who cover their outbreaks have refused to assimilate this possibility, an omission treated here among our many lakes as much a matter of state pride as business as usual.

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