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If no industrial engineer comes along to develop Cardona's biosecure netting for free-range farmers, Mahrt's setup may offer consumers who care about animal welfare our only shot at compromise between animal welfare and public health -- one that might even pass muster with activists. The Humane Society of the United States' Shapiro, for one, scoffs at United Egg Producers and its press release defending factory-farming methods. "The fact is, they're trying to mislead consumers," he says. "There's no advantage to keeping hens in cages. If they want to claim that there's an advantage to keeping hens indoors, well, most egg production in the United States is indoors. What we're is asking of companies is that birds be allowed to walk around and engage in natural behaviors."
The future is even less certain for smaller farmers such as Rutherford and Davis, who raise chickens the way their grandparents and great-grandparents did. For even if avian flu never hits US shores, the damage it could nevertheless cause -- to small-scale farmers, to millennia-old traditions, to the way we think about poultry and eggs -- may well prove permanent.