dayton-turkeyThe explosion, at last, lies down. As if, though–the two drug enthusiasts who got in and out of its last moment insist–out of pity, rather than because it must. –China Miéville (2015)

A season’s greetings may mark as much a farewell as a salutation.

By a full-throated onamonapia we channel our near-national bird, which, when the other national holiday is upon us, is suddenly lined up for death in the millions. And gobble gobble we continue throughout the day–and into the new year–gnawing Viking drumsticks while watching Meat Packers bludgeon Rust Belt Steelers into what for the team owners are lucrative cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

By way of zooarchaeologist Stanley Olsen, Heather Horn dates our enthusiasm back before the country, to the Mayans, who among others domesticated the ocellated turkey long before the arrival of the conquistadors. Raising them caught on so wildly in Europe that the birds–mislabeled Turkey in origin by explorers who once thought themselves in India–were brought back to America by colonial Patriots bound for Massachusetts and Virginia.

Wild turkeys here, Horn continues, once in the millions and tasting far better than their repatriated cousins, would be driven nearly extinct by colonial deforestation.

If the domesticated variant–their population size alone apparently fortune enough–were dependent upon ecologically marginalizing all other wild animals, and to the Raiders’ mind the Redskins among them, then the emergence of highly pathogenic H5N2 last year among industrial turkey appears dead center within the great national tradition of guns, germs, and steal.


By virus direct and by culling, the H5N2 outbreak killed nearly 50 million poultry.

The economic consequences seemed dire. As Lydia Mulvany, Linly Lin, and Megan Durisin reported for Bloomberg, with supplies down turkey prices spiraled up, with only smaller birds, grown out only after the outbreak, available:

Production fell to a five-year low, and the September weight decline for turkeys was the biggest for that month in four decades, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show.

Wholesale, fresh turkey hens surged 18 percent from a year earlier to a record $1.5993 a pound as of Nov. 6, and frozen turkeys were up 5.6 percent at $1.309 a pound, after touching an all-time high of $1.385 a week earlier, USDA data show. The agency estimates birds at slaughter weighed 29.7 pounds in September, down 2.8 percent from a year earlier and the biggest decline for that month since 1973.

The truncated supply extended to frozen turkeys:

There were 268 million pounds of whole turkeys in cold storage at the end of September, the least for the month since 2006, according to the USDA. Supplies of all frozen turkey were the lowest in three decades. Domestic production will drop 3.2 percent this year to 5.57 billion pounds, the lowest since 2010, according to USDA estimates.

Consumers appeared saved by a retailer tradition. Chains of grocery stores typically absorb the costs of turkey to promote sales of more costly fixings, although cranberries and other trimmings weren’t more expensive in 2015 than last.

Producers, in contrast, were sent far afield:

With tighter supplies, buyers are competing for supply. The Cornwell family in Marshall, Michigan, which raises as many as 40,000 birds a year, is getting calls for the first time from large food distributors and food-services companies that usually only buy from major producers, farm owner Patti Cornwell said.

Only a week later, New York Times columnist James B. Stewart, he of Den of Thieves fame, and more recently Wall Street baster, contended the turkey sector in fact had pulled its feathers out of the fire:

In case you haven’t done your shopping or reserved a turkey yet, rest assured: There will be a turkey for you. Not only is there no shortage, but turkeys are selling for some of the lowest prices in years.

For that happy outcome, we can give thanks to the resilience of American agriculture and enterprising farmers like Brad Moline…

After thorough cleaning and disinfecting, his farm was cleared to restock on July 23. But poults, the day-old turkey fledglings that he buys from a hatchery in Minnesota, were in short supply. Finally, on July 31, Mr. Moline welcomed a shipment of 28,000 poults, making his the first affected turkey farm in Iowa to reopen.

The grand victory, in the face of Stewart’s own headline, came at a cost:

Mr. Moline says he will be taking a hit to his annual income, which he estimates will be cut this year by two-thirds. His flocks weren’t insured. (There’s no insurance available, he said.) He was grateful that the federal government, through a program that compensates farmers for losses incurred by infected livestock, reimbursed him for birds that were killed and paid some of the cleanup costs. “But the payments didn’t cover our costs,” he said.

That is, as long planned for, the sector–the Chargers–survived an outbreak of its own making by sticking both the taxpayer and the contract farmer with the bill.

But to Stewart such sacrifices saved the day:

Because of the pluck of Mr. Moline and his ilk, the retail price for turkey has already dropped in anticipation of a resumption in supply from reopened farms…According to the United States Department of Agriculture, for the week ending last Friday, the average retail price for frozen whole hen turkeys was 90 cents a pound. That’s down sharply from the $1.08 a pound the week before and is a penny less than the 91 cents a pound turkey was selling for a year ago.

Despite the geographic and temporal bottlenecks that threatened Thanksgiving–a few turkey states with an exact day to stick a landing–the sector retained enough resilience:

Producers who weren’t affected were able to step up production, and much of this year’s Thanksgiving supply had already been harvested and flash-frozen before the outbreak.

The 7.5 million birds lost to the epidemic, while a large number in absolute terms, accounted for just 3 percent of the total annual United States production of 228 million birds, according to the American Turkey Federation.

In short, Stewart celebrates contractor farmers who absorbed the losses for a system that caused the disaster.

To be thanked too are consumers whose palettes have been long trained–back to colonial days–to production’s demands. Freezing birds nine months before Thanksgiving cushioned the market’s own blow.


meetingWhat lessons were learned?

Few apparently, save, perhaps, the means and modes by which to better stage manage the outbreak in industrial husbandry’s favor. But despite the spin, the sector lost its strut, calling in every political chip it could to save its hide for the year. Indeed, the outbreak cost Minnesota husbandry as much as it profited the previous year.

The poultry-industrial complex has since turned to developing more sophisticated, and yet still unconvincing, rationales for preserving the present production model. Whole research programs, sudden conversions to the ecohealth program, now orbit ever new “inferences” blaming farm workers and wild waterfowl–geese, ducks, Ravens, Cardinals, Falcons, and Eagles–for the H5N2 outbreak.

One wildlife biologist was so pissed off by such efforts early on that she alerted me to a private conference held by what I’ve taken to calling the virus lobby.

The Conference on One Medicine One Science, a University of Minnesota effort already aimed at maturing the One Health concept to greenwasher dividends, held an emergency workshop around the H5N2 outbreak in June 2015.

The College of Veterinary Medicine presented the workshop, along with the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. The latter dubs itself part of the “the Silicon Valley of Food,” with the explicit aim of supporting local agribusiness giants Cargill, General Mills, Land O’Lakes, among others. AgStar, Boehringer Ingelheim, and Puretein ponied up for the confab, the first two at the “platinum” level, the third at “gold”. How far the University of Minnesota strays from its land grant obligations.

I caught the first day of the workshop.

Erica Spackman of the USDA began the day reporting telling data about the virus and the outbreak. Turkeys experimentally infected shed copious virus, with mean death times of six days, topping out at 15 days. All experimental turkeys, pheasants, and partridge were killed by the virus. The virus was lethal to chickens but at a lesser rate of mortality, with more recent isolates increasingly adapted to their chicken hosts. Out in the field, for reasons unknown, layers, not broilers, were killed.

To be sure to the industry’s relief, as there is now something else to blame the outbreak, mallard ducks showed no mortality or gross lesions, but lots of virus shedding, one to two log10 greater than with other highly pathogenic avian influenza, shedding as long as fourteen days past initial infection.

When later asked to reconcile such shedding with the failure of detecting H5N2 in waterfowl in Minnesota, Spackman replied she couldn’t, but, she argued, many species don’t follow the typical flyways and some are short-distance migrants. Her explanation didn’t answer the question.

Pat Redig, director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, countered that even in winter, thousands of waterfowl circulate locally from lakes to rural areas and back, and yet no HPAI-positive samples were isolated in a recent survey. Only 3% sampled proved low-pathogenic-positive. And the first outbreak in March 2015 was spatially inconsistent with documented migration patterns.

Redig appeared to be following up a broader point made by Lou Cornicelli, wildlife research manager for the state’s Department of Natural Resources, to the effect that in contradiction to continuing industry-funded efforts to blame them, the waterfowl aren’t the keystone to H5N2 epizoology.

If not geese and ducks, then what?

As a growing literature in modeling pathogen virulence shows–here and here to start–intensive husbandry, growing thousands in packed homogeneous monoculture, offers so much food for flu (and other pathogens), spurring the evolution of explosive deadliness.

New data Spackman presented converged on another problematic influenza could evolve under such conditions. As our own team hypothesized five years previous, Spackman reported a disconnect of early shedding and late disease symptoms in poultry hosts that weren’t apparent until the tail end of the infection.

Such an evolved life history, we previously proposed, would permit the virus to circumvent even the most diligent farmer. That is, the virus appears to evolve out from underneath the parameters of due biosecurity–farmers can’t control what they can’t detect. Indeed, one audience member pointed out that feed and water intake among poultry didn’t drop before the H5N2 symptoms appeared.

Spackman also reported no change in the strain’s antigentic cartography, the map of the immune responses to its evolutionary changes. That’s a marker of, yes, the gap in vaccination–the H5N2 vaccine prove inefficacious and was never deployed–but also of the virus’s epidemiological sweet spot.

H5N2 hadn’t had to evolve in response to developing immune resistance at the population level, a circumstance, as I described elsewhere, that arises from a model of production that fails to pass on such resistance to the next generation. No immunological adaptation in surviving birds can be passed on as shed poultry are never bred onsite. All breeding is conducted at the grandparent level and largely for morphometric characteristics, such as fast growth and big breasts.

That is, this model of poultry production removes natural selection as a free ecosystem service.


Although by the organizers own description the COSMOS workshop was held to learn where the virus intersected with agricultural industry structure, Peter Forsman, of Forsman Farms, an earnest enough guy, speaking for the industry’s interests, made no bones about the relationship between the two.

He charged epidemiologists in the room, many on the industry teat, to fix the problem  without recommending any major changes to production. After all, farmers were already operating on thin margins in a production system driven by its economics.

When no one in the room offered a word in contradiction to such an immodest demand, I intervened, pointing out to many a suddenly raised eyebrow that in actuality epidemiologists see in the industry’s business model–giant monocultures and high throughput in geographically concentrated metapopulations–the best means by which to engineer a deadly pathogen.

Forsman also pointed out that farms share processing crews as far afield as across states, “Again, it’s about scale.” How do we get these workers to act right? To engage in proper biosecurity practices? The wrong questions, to be sure, missing the possibility that, as the French poultry sector recently concluded, the industrial agrosystem had reached a boundary condition at which no biosecurity is enough.

Some bright bulb from industry in the audience asked if we can prevent laborers from passing along infections, by—I kid you not–keeping them confined to their houses when off the farm. Never mind paying these workers so poorly that they must migrate farm-to-farm is another pylon in the business model the room refused to address save as an objective to protect.

Shawn Kennedy, director of the University of Minnesota’s Food System Institute, offered another set of right answers to wrong questions. He spoke on the social costs of the outbreak, including the direct economic impact on farmers and their communities. Minnesota poultry lost $650 million and 2,500 jobs directly to the outbreak, with up to a $1 billion lost in output.

Kennedy omitted addressing whether the industrial model itself is the source of the eroding purchasing power, farmer suicides and PTSD, and, indeed, the outbreak itself. He ended his talk begging industry representatives present to “please consider community effects.”

That political trap proved systemic. Steve Renquist, Executive Director at the Economic Development Commission for hard-hit Kandiyohi County, launched upon a similar line of argument. He reminisced about the bad old days of the 1980s, when squeezed farmers committed record suicides. But his bitter tone turned to pleas to industry for help for his county’s farmers.

Many of Minnesota’s rural counties are governments in name only. They are in actuality company counties, entirely dependent upon a single or a few agribusiness for development. Pertinent agencies are run via revolving door arrangements by the very companies they ostensibly regulate, with the predictable effects on local pollution and other “externalities”.

So it wasn’t a surprise that Michelle Kromm of Hormel’s Jennie-O objected to my characterization of her contention that the outbreak had “brought the poultry family together” was a cynical ploy. In actuality, she declared, I was the cynical one to assume the worst.

Kromm refused to address her CEO’s threat to geographically “diversify” production if outbreaks continued–that is, move production out of Minnesota, a position Briah Buhr, Professor of Applied Economics and now Dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, later explicitly defended as the “natural” outcome of parsing out “winners” and “losers” of the outbreak.

Nor did Kromm address the damage vertically integration imposes upon contract farmers before a single outbreak, save to say that only half of Jennie-O farms are contracted, which begs the question, why contract at all?

Jennie-O cleared $276.2 million in operating profit in “bad year” 2015. Did the division share the margin with  contractors or company producers? Or even with the state? Indeed, as I wrote here, turkey farmers, with no insurance available, bore the brunt of the direct costs of the birds killed by H5N2, while the feds paid for culling the poultry that remained. In other words, the system worked exactly as the meat companies long designed it. Someone else picked up the bill.

Imagine, then, a father who drives around in a Ferrari while his children barely scrape by on meals. In real life, as opposed to PR life, someone would call child services. Indeed, notions of the business “family” have long been the butt of cheap jokes.

A woman from the Minnesota Department of Health whose named I didn’t catch dismissed such concerns. After all, the farmers hit by the outbreak she met in the course of her department’s surveys had no complaints about the treatment they received from their partner companies. Nor about the preventative Tamiflu they were asked to take.


I didn’t get the chance to respond, but would have by asking if her conclusions were an official Department of Health position. How many years of ethnographic research did she squeeze in her few weeks’ tour of the state? And are farmers in desperate need of any and all help in an emergency in any position to complain?

Not that there aren’t any farmers satisfied with the assistance they received, but the claim of no complaints is a standard divorced from the realities of a monopoly agriculture that routinely disciplines complaining contractors with the worst poults and feed.

Turkeys are to Minnesota what water is to Los Angeles. Any disruption in its model of development and the bodies to be paid for are more than in poultry. More than merely a united face, one caught the whiff here of government, academia, and industry in the business of defending the indefensible together whatever the facts. The room was heady with a mix of the corruption and the fear of those who know better. Many a bright mind talking about an outbreak without talking about it.

At one point Jennie-O’s Kromm casually referred to Vet Med professor Carol Cardona, long on the poultry dole, by her first name. At her mention, Cardona, sitting at the front, turned her head like a wishbone, and, unfair on my part, for a split second I mistook an earring for a tag.

2 Responses to “Banksgiving”

  1. Hi Rob:
    You’ve been a busy one. I’d not been stopping by too regularly and missed a few posts. My bad.

    In this effort you take aim at who pays for the workshop and end a paragraph with:

    How far the University of Minnesota strays from its land grant obligations.

    This leaves me to wonder if obligations is actually the word you want. ‘Origins’ perhaps… but “obligations”? Does the University still have some sort of obligation, and if so how is it enforced? My hunch is the fall off in federal and state investment in University efforts (either from direct shrinkage in $ over time, or in a relative shrinkage in % of all investments) is in some way responsible for a lot of what you are noticing.

    Are there any Hatch funds available within any of the Ag. College departments? If so, what proportion of the department’s (or the College’s) research budgets are supported this way?

    I’m not suggesting your disappointment is unwarranted, but if you were an untenured young faculty member whose professional survival were keyed to your publications and your ability to attract extramural income, where would you turn?? Perhaps there are even more windmills to tilt on…

  2. rgwallace Says:

    Welcome back, Clem.

    Clearly the de facto collapse in state funding underlines the budgetary shift you raised. Public universities are desperate for overhead and are selling themselves as agribusiness R&D. As I alluded to in the article, University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences explicitly flaunts itself as at the service of the “Silicon Valley of Food”: Cargill, General Mills, etc.

    But budgets are as much political documents as tables of figures, broadly marking, in this case, the post-war decision to shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism–to make all other goals subordinate to the profitability of capitalist firms. That is, as Jim Hightower pointed out as early as 1972, the collapse of the land grant model was no happenstance:

    “Corporate agriculture’s preoccupation with scientific and business efficiency has produced a radical restructuring of rural America that has been carried into urban America. There has been more than a green revolution out there–in the last 30 years there literally has been a social and economic upheaval in the American countryside. It is a protracted, violent revolution, and it continues today.

    “The land grant college complex has been the scientific and intellectual father of that revolution. This public complex has put its tax dollars, its facilities, its manpower, its energies and its thoughts almost solely into efforts that have worked to the advantage and profit of large corporations involved in agriculture.”

    Check out the list of Iowa State Ag profs–hardly doe-eyed untenured–in Tom Philpott’s review of Food and Water Watch’s report on land grant universities: Vast proportions of lab budgets are corporate in origin, in some cases nearly 100%. With attendant effects on the science produced.

    Science isn’t merely a method of testing hypotheses. We need ask how the questions to be addressed are arrived at. Because, here, they have a profound impact on the food produced. Indeed, in Michael Hart’s short documentary, farmers complain that the collapse in the land grant model has left few alternatives to the failing pesticide matrix:

    As universities are legacies of billions of state dollars rolled over, and even now still invested, it would be wise of us to avoid the facile dichotomy of origins and obligation.

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