Skip Navigation
June 19, 2024

3 mins read

Bird Flu Outbreak and USDA’s Failure to Prioritize Prevention

More than 40 dairy herds in nine states have been infected with the latest strain of H5N1 bird flu. The virus has also infected at least two farmworkers, one in Texas and another in Michigan. We’re even seeing outbreaks in domestic cats and house mice.

The USDA and FDA maintain that dairy milk is safe to consume. Government regulators say pasteurization kills off the virus, though new research finds that commercial pasteurization doesn’t kill all live viruses in milk, meaning there may be live viruses in milk on store shelves. As for unpasteurized dairy products like raw milk, the FDA and USDA recommend not consuming them. Despite this warning, sales of raw milk are increasing. State laws on raw milk vary widely, and though the FDA is urging states to ramp up testing and restrictions, few states have limited the sale of raw milk meaning thousands of consumers are at risk of exposure to bird flu in dairy products.

The most upsetting part of the current bird flu outbreak is that it’s not a surprise. Farm Forward has been sounding the alarm for years that factory farms are petri dishes for zoonotic diseases. On factory farms—which account for 99 percent of animals raised for food—animals are overwhelmingly genetically uniform, immunocompromised, and crammed together by the tens of thousands. Following the emergence of COVID-19, Farm Forward board members Jonathan Safran Foer and Aaron Gross warned in an April 2020 op-ed in the Guardian of the need to end the industrial chicken industry as a measure to prevent future bird flu pandemics. Now that bird flu has spread to more than 200 wild animals, including seals, bears, and mountain lions, and has spread to domestic and farmed animals such as cats and dairy cows, further spread of bird flu seems inevitable. If the virus jumps to pigs, the chances of a wider human outbreak increase substantially.

So why isn’t more being done to protect the public from dangerous farming practices? Simple. Factory farm owners are incentivized by profits, and the simple-but-scary fact is that it’s more profitable to raise animals in ways that are dangerous to public health, harm animals, and pollute the environment. And government bodies are mostly unwilling to use their authority to meaningfully regulate industrial animal farming, instead seeing their role as protecting the financial interests of agribusiness.

Take testing. The federal government has mandated testing only of lactating dairy cows traveling across state lines. Funds have been allocated to pay farm owners to test dairy herds, but officials say they can’t mandate broader testing. And farmworkers who get tested are eligible to receive $75 each—but that’s hardly an incentive, as testing positive would require workers to visit a clinic, then stay home from work. Many of them can’t afford to do either.

Instead of getting at the root cause by better regulating farms, the federal government is scrambling to get ready for the now-inevitable spread of bird flu; they’re preparing 4.8 million doses of a bird flu vaccine for humans in case the virus jumps again.

Maddeningly, the federal government is also reimbursing giant farming corporations for cleaning up the mess they themselves caused. Farms kill animals en masse and get paid for it. Our own investigation found the USDA has paid $715 million to companies like Tyson and Jennie-O to compensate for losses from bird flu outbreaks that those very companies largely caused. “These payments are crazy-making and dangerous,” said Andrew deCoriolis, Farm Forward’s executive director. “Not only are we wasting taxpayer money on profitable companies for a problem they created, but we’re not giving them any incentive to make changes.”

The best treatment for a pandemic is preventing it before it starts—by decreasing the size of animal farms, reducing crowding, and improving the genetics of the animals. These steps are critical in addressing the underlying conditions that lead to pandemics like the one we’re now facing.