The avian influenza (AI) outbreak in the United States was the worst animal health disaster in the country’s history. An unprecedented number of birds — more than 48 million — succumbed to the virus or were destroyed, forcing the United States Department of Agriculture to take a hard look at it’s policies on containment, destruction and disposal of AI positive flocks.
There’s no question that the sheer magnitude of the outbreak quickly stripped the USDA and its Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of available resources. With poultry farms that average in the hundreds of thousands and millions of birds, the USDA and industry were completely overwhelmed and the virus spread out of control.
That’s why APHIS has made some significant revisions to its Highly Pathogenic Avian Influeneza (HPAI) preparation plan so that the U.S., should it face HPAI again this fall or early next year, hopefully won’t suffer the losses it did this past spring and summer.
But the plan isn’t without controversy. The most significant change announced by APHIS is a new 24-hour “stamping out” policy, meaning that if a flock tests positive for HPAI, it is to be destroyed within 24 hours of the positive test. With flock sizes in the millions at one facility, typical methods of depopulation previously approved for use in the U.S. — foaming and CO2 gassing — aren’t always possible and in many cases, cannot complete the task in the 24-hour timeline. Consequently, APHIS has proposed a new option of “ventilation shutdown” for cases where other options are not feasible. The barn is essentially shut down and the birds are left to die from suffocation and heat.
When the announcement was made in mid-September criticism of the decision was swift. I’ll admit I am one of these critics; it’s definitely not an appealing option and seems inherently cruel.
However, given the magnitude of the 2015 outbreak I can understand the logic behind the APHIS decision even if I don’t agree with the method. A couple of weeks after the announcement was made, the 5th International Symposium on Animal Mortality Management was held in Lancaster, Pa. where depopulation and disposal was of course the focus. Invited speaker Mark Van Oort, complex manager for Center Fresh Egg Farm in Iowa really drove home the immense challenge faced by the industry in the face of HPAI. His company had to depopulate over 7 million laying hens and pullets at six facility locations. The amount of foam or gas required was not available and the labour requirement forced the company to bring in 200 people from other States, and it still could only manage to cull a little more than 250,000 birds per day.
When it takes three weeks for culling and disposal, it’s no surprise Van Oort feels that ventilation shutdown “might be the only way to control the virus.” Granted, his company is large, but on average, it took four to five days to euthanize birds on affected farms (see page 28), which is too long and allows the virus to continue thriving.
Van Oort feels the U.S. industry “needs euthanasia options that are large scale.” Indeed they do, but is ventilation shutdown the right way to do this?
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