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Endangered Species

Free-range poultry may be the first casualty in our war on avian flu.



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In an interview, Armstrong comes across as a guy who is comfortable with his opinions and the moral ambiguities they contain. He explains that the key measure of animal welfare the committee looked at was mortality: How many chickens did a given cage size or feeding regimen kill? "Up to a point, you give the hens more space and fewer hens die," he says. "If you give them even more space, some negative behaviors emerge, and it's not advantageous."

Armstrong concedes that not everyone would choose mortality as the most important variable. There's simply no empirical way to measure chicken happiness. "Just how bad is it to suppress a bird being able to run, a bird being able to flap its wings, a bird being able to dustbathe? I don't think the science is clear on that aspect."

The trade group's new "science-based" standards set cage density at 67 to 85 square inches per hen, which means the page you're reading right now would accommodate between 1.9 and 2.4 adult chickens. The new guidelines also forbid the stacking of cages, rein in forced-molting practices, and improve ventilation and access to water. In short, they improve upon some of the worst aspects of battery-cage systems. But commercial producers, many of whom operate on tight margins, can phase in the changes as money and time allows; there's no fixed deadline. More critically, the new standards don't answer the activists' assertion that packing chickens densely into cages constitutes extreme cruelty.

United Egg Producers offers two defenses of battery-cage farming: The first is that it keeps egg prices down, giving customers a choice. The second invokes the specter of bird flu. The trade association sent out a national press release four weeks ago titled "Modern U.S. Egg Farm Production Methods Help Protect Against Spread of Avian Influenza."

"The modern type of animal production in the United States is actually more protective of birds, their health and well-being than the more traditional systems such as the free running village chickens in Asia," it stated. By modern methods, the United Egg Producers means locked barns, workers in full-body suits, and caged chickens.

In the meantime, a well-known nemesis of factory farming also is using avian flu as a scare tactic, but to a different end. On November 18, in time for Thanksgiving, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sent out its own press release: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that avian flu can be caught simply by eating undercooked meat or eggs contaminated with the virus, by eating undercooked food prepared on the same cutting board as infected meat or eggs, or even by touching contaminated eggshells," it stated, tweaking the agency's precautions to people in potential outbreak areas to make them sound like general threats. "Leaving aside avian flu, according to the CDC, tens of millions of Americans get sick every year from bacteria-laden meat, and thousands die. We could help stop the spread of bird flu and other contaminants by cleaning up appallingly crowded and filthy chicken and turkey factory farms. The best alternative for consumers, though, is to simply stop eating animals."

The fact is, if avian flu or any other serious poultry disease hits California again, the government isn't about to take any chances. So jumpy are the health authorities that just last week, according to The New York Times, federal agriculture officials banned imports of poultry from British Columbia after Canadian officials announced that they had found a duck infected with a mild North American flu strain. "We do recognize that we're dealing with an extremely hypersensitive environment,'' the Times quoted a Canadian government veterinarian as saying.

A little hypersensitivity, however, helped USDA and California officials contain exotic Newcastle within a remarkable eleven months. Wherever they found the disease they quarantined not only the farm in question, but any farm within a given radius. Nor did they merely quarantine. "We culled birds thoroughly to get out in front of the disease," says Steve Lyle, director for public affairs for the food and agriculture department. "If we established that birds in the vicinity of the infected flock were at risk for catching and spreading the disease, we would depopulate them." Some people, he says, lost a cherished pet bird. Others suffered purely monetary losses.

The USDA has a fund to compensate farmers for their "depopulated" birds. But the economic impact goes far beyond the cost of replacement flocks. Before they could raise poultry again, farms touched by exotic Newcastle had to be decontaminated, and then wait thirty days to let any remaining virus die before the farm could be restocked. Farmers weren't compensated for this additional lost income, and others, those who sold their birds overseas, also took a hit. During the outbreak, 29 countries and the European Union banned imports of all poultry products from the affected areas. Some of the bans targeted the entire state.

That's why UC Davis has come up with a new slogan for its outreach efforts: the "good neighbor policy," otherwise known as regional biosecurity. "We're in this together, the backyard flocks and the commercial flocks. Even if your birds aren't affected, they're all linked," Cardona explains. "The commercial industry has a stake in keeping backyard poultry healthy, and backyard people interact in so many ways with the commercial industry that they're interested in keeping the commercial industry healthy, too."

But does this policy mean everyone has to keep hens in battery cages? Does avian flu signal the death knell for free-range and cage-free eggs?

It should be noted that these labels mean little in practical terms. To be designated "free-range" or "free-roaming," the USDA mandates only that birds have "access" to the outside. "The government only requires that outdoor access be made available for 'an undetermined period each day,'" points out, the Consumer Union's Web guide to environmental labels. "That means that the door to the coop or stall could be opened for five minutes a day and if the animal(s) did not see the open door or chose not to leave -- even everyday -- it could still qualify as 'free range.'"

And this applies only to meat, not eggs. The government does not regulate the term "cage-free," although the USDA's National Organic Program would seem to guarantee that eggs and poultry are free-range, since certified-organic producers must "provide access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight." Again, however, the word "access" is defined so vaguely that critics say it's misleading.

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