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April 2, 2024

3 mins read

Federal Funds Bail Out Poultry Industry, Increasing Pandemic Risk

A new investigation by Farm Forward and Our Honor finds that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is rewarding big meat and egg companies with bailouts to compensate for losses from bird flu outbreaks—even as those companies’ very own factory farming practices are a main cause of the outbreaks to begin with. The New York Times, working off our research, reported that giant meat and egg companies like Tyson, Hormel, and Rembrandt Foods are getting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to compensate them for losses from highly pathogenic avian influenza (bird flu). However, the government is doing nothing to demand that they reform the conditions that lead to bird flu outbreaks. More on the implications of these findings can be found in our published op-ed in Newsweek.

Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Our Honor uncovered the recipients of the USDA’s Indemnity and Compensation program. The results are damning. The top 60 companies that benefited from the bailout funds took over half a billion dollars of federal money. Notably, Jennie-O, a subsidiary of Hormel, was granted the highest disbursement: a stunning $88 million to one company. In the same year as the USDA’s bailout, Hormel reported a revenue of $3.2 billion. In other words, The federal government is giving taxpayer dollars to hugely profitable, large-scale factory farms.

Collectively, the USDA has allocated a total of $715 million towards bird flu compensation in just the past couple of years. Stunningly, these payments are not contingent on industrial operations making changes that reduce pandemic risk (e.g., by lessening extreme confinement). In other words, industrial operations that mass kill millions of birds as a result of bird flu—a zoonotic disease that devastates precisely because of the conditions of their operation—are given millions of dollars to be compensated for their systemic failure. On top of that, the policy does nothing proactive to rectify the conditions that, more broadly, lead to avian influenza. This would be like US taxpayers paying BP to clean up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and doing so without requiring any changes to reduce the risk of future spills. It’s no wonder then that the poultry industry isn’t taking meaningful action to reduce the risk of future bird flu outbreaks.

Importantly, the mass depopulation method that many of these companies use is inconceivably cruel. The most common method used to mass kill chickens or turkeys is ventilation shutdown plus (VSD+), which involves shutting down the ventilation systems in poultry houses and pumping in heat, leading to a rise in temperature and humidity to lethal levels over many hours. Tens of millions of birds have been killed this way.  

Unsurprisingly, many of the companies receiving bailouts have had other flu outbreaks. In 2015, Rembrandt had a massive outbreak at an Iowa complex that resulted in the mass killing of 5.5 million hens. In 2022, Rembrandt had another outbreak, killed 5.3 million birds, and then laid off 250 employees.

And more recently, cows at several dairy farms across the country have tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza. In other words, there are now cases of the virus jumping from poultry to cattle. While the federal government assured that the risk to the public remains low, it’s still concerning that multiple operations are reporting cross-species infection. And early this April, the Washington Post reported a case in Texas, where a person contracted bird flu after contact with infected dairy cattle.

“Fixing” a problem that industrial poultry created

Policymakers continue to ignore the scientific consensus that industrial poultry farming poses a clear and present danger to public health from increased pandemic risk.

As the UN Report, Preventing the Next Pandemic, states:

“The intensification of agriculture, and in particular of domestic livestock farming (animal husbandry), results in large numbers of genetically similar animals. These are often bred for higher production levels; more recently, they have also been bred for disease resistance. As a result, domestic animals are being kept in close proximity to each other and often in less than ideal conditions. Such genetically homogenous host populations are more vulnerable to infection than genetically diverse populations, because the latter are more likely to include some individuals that better resist disease.” (pg. 15)

If the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic should have taught us one thing, it’s that we have to take pandemic prevention just as seriously as preparedness. A serious commitment to preventing the next pandemic must tackle the sources of greatest risk—which includes factory poultry farming. To truly protect ourselves from future pandemic risk, we have to end Big Poultry.

Farm Forward plans to push the USDA and Congress to take action to address the root causes of pandemic risk. Sign up below for more updates about our work.