How Avian Flu Affects Us (Or Not)

You may not have heard, but avian influenza is once again running rampant through the nation’s poultry flocks, resulting in the extermination of over 28 million laying hens and turkeys. And of course, the media weighs in on the rise in egg and chicken prices and to parrot the mainstream narrative.

Avian influenza has made its rounds in several areas of the US before—with varying degrees of severity. As always in the past, the “experts” claim it originates in wild birds and backyard flocks who perchance mingle with wild birds. Interestingly enough, I know of no case affecting wild birds or homestead flocks. Just saying.

Over the weekend the first confirmed case was found in Lancaster County in a commercial egg factory—resulting in the slaughter of 1.4 million birds on a single farm. I don’t know how many barns were involved in housing these 1.4 million, but only know they were from a single farm. If this farm had 20 chicken barns—which is unlikely, the numbers come out to 70,000 birds per barn. Again, we don’t know how large the barns are, or how much space each individual bird had in this specific situation. But we know standard procedure in the poultry industry is maximum number of birds per area, minimal natural air flow, genetically modified feed, sub-therapeutic antibiotics, and the like.  You don’t need a degree in animal science to know such practices don’t jive with health and wellness for any living creature.

But that’s not part of the official conversation even in light of the extermination of millions of birds. The hubris of an industry whose sole focus is to manufacture meat or eggs as cheaply and as quickly as possible with minimal inputs has no room for the humility of “maybe we shouldn’t be doing things this way”. Simply put, the checks and balances of nature are not part of the discussion.

My friend Joel Salatin tells of when avian flu broke out in his part of Virginia several years ago. Two of the federal veterinarians sent to exterminate chickens visited his farm for an independent tour. The visits and subsequent conversations shared an identical assessment:  too many chickens crammed in too tight a space in too small a geographic area. Both said if they mentioned that publicly they would be fired. As always, there’s a narrative that must be supported.

Biosecurity is always the first line of defense. The poultry industry is fanatical about this—even absent the current flu. Be it keeping wild birds far from facilities to sanitizing all tires entering and exiting the farm to wearing full hazmat gear in the barns, there’s an obsession with isolating germs. If this doesn’t expose the extreme fragility of the system, I don’t know what does. But sadly, it’s the last remaining defense in an inherently unhealthy production model. Oh, by the way, the “organic” poultry industry is as jittery about this as the conventional because they’ve adopted the same factory confinement model. Actually, they may be more worried because they can’t use antibiotics.

Isn’t it amazing how we humans always look to blame some culprit over which we have little or no control? Whether it be a virus created in China or a flu brought by wild birds, our first instinct is to point fingers at some uncontrollable that turns us into a helpless victim. To think of variables within our control means we share responsibility, which in turn could cause us to question the actions of the person in the mirror.

I dare say most—if not all—backyard poultry flocks are far healthier than multi-thousand-bird confinement flocks. As for wild birds? They adhere—by default—to strict survival of the fittest. This means their old, weak, and diseased must die a quick and ruthless death at the behest of predators. In my years of studying nature in order to learn from its wisdom, I have yet to see rampant disease. The only exception is when man meddles with natural predator/prey cycles, upon which disease steps up to keep wildlife populations on par with food or habitat resources.  

That said, I think it’s fairly obvious why the poultry industry would like to vilify outdoor flocks, given the sharp rise of such in the past two years. Empty supermarket shelves in the spring of 2020 awakened folks all over the country to the instability of the food supply, and many became proactive by either procuring a backyard flock or collaborating with neighbors, family, or a local farm. It’s the ultimate correction of over-centralized food production. When the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it corrects itself.

In the past few weeks several people asked how avian flu affects us—or if it presents a challenge. At the risk of seeming arrogant, let me just say we’re not concerned. We simply don’t see it as a threat if we remain focused on production models that promotes health and wellness. In raising pastured eggs and meat birds, we’re adamant about four elements of nature; fresh air, maximum sunshine, greens in the diet (grass), and optimal exercise, not to mention chemical-free and GMO-free grains. If we stay the course in pursuing animal wellness, and respect the templates nature provides, I’m confident our farm will be free of the diseases that plague the confinement poultry industry.

If you have a backyard flock and are concerned about the its health and safety, I only recommend adhering to the principles outlined above. Small flocks raised in a natural environment, I believe, will not be affected. Oh, one more thing, if this reaches endemic proportions where local municipalities or ag officials become heavy-handed about backyard flocks, do not allow any officials access to your flock without a search warrant. I hope it won’t progress to such, but it can’t be ruled out. I’m not trying to scare anyone, rather to inform.  

I can’t help but notice the parallel between what the poultry industry is facing and the merry-go-round we’ve been on during the past two years with the Covid crisis. It’s become more obvious than ever, I feel, that we cannot manipulate our way to health by being freakish about germs. Be it sterility hysteria in the home or workplace, face covering and staying apart, or euthanizing infected birds, circumventing disease merely by dodging “the germ” becomes a rat race of new variants and increased precautionary measures. Dare I mention that increased vaccination is now more dubious than ever.   

The disease/wellness discussion basically comes down to two paths. On one side there’s the germ/victim mindset, which leans toward abdication of responsibility and has a hand out asking for favor. On the other hand, there’s the belief that wellness hinges on terrain or immunity influenced by human choice. If disease is indiscriminate and we’re equally susceptible we’re nothing but victims of the pernicious whims of the disease fairy. If, however, we play a part in making ourselves impervious by choosing healthier lifestyles and common-sense food habits, let’s shoulder the responsibility. And that’s The View from the Country.