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Factory farms the culprit: CSE

This new model of growing chicken is a highly conducive environment for the rapid spread of virus.

india Updated: Mar 19, 2006 20:31 IST

The backyard poultry seen as the main hindrance in containing bird flu has actually far less potential of spreading the virus than the big poultry farms.

"It will be a mistake to believe that by culling some hundred thousands birds and vaccinating as many more in big farms in Maharashtra and Gujarat in the coming days, the spread of the virus could be checked," says Centre for Science and Environment Director (CSE), Sunita Narain.

Today, chicken is increasingly grown in places known as "factory farms" unlike the traditional backyard or household poultry. These operations are highly automated and industrialised where thousands of live birds are squeezed into spaces so small that they cannot move.

The chicken is vaccinated time and again to prevent diseases. It is fed everything from antibiotics to additives in its feed to promote growth in this profitable production system.

A few large companies franchise chicken growing to contract growers, to whom they supply the newly hatched chicken and all other materials like feed, vitamins, vaccines and antibiotics till the chicken is taken back for sale or export.

In the US, for instance, only four companies control 60 per cent of the broiler chicken industry. Tyson Foods, which calls itself the world's largest protein producer, has sales of above $26 billion, annually.

This company and many others are now moving into Asia, which is fast moving towards this model of food business.

In Thailand, for instance, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes in its report on bird flu that chicken exports are controlled by the 10 largest integrators.

The fact that this business is so highly integrated -- a single company breeds the chickens, makes the vaccines, manufactures the feed and the additives -- that is virtually impossible to regulate.

The problem is that in this model of growing chicken there is a highly conducive environment for the virus. Chickens breed in environments -- tightly confined, often poorly ventilated with exposure to chemicals, blood and faecal matter -- where the disease can spread, can spread fast.

In this environment, the birds also have lowered immunity -- because of their genetic uniformity and need for frequent vaccination.

The world is more vulnerable to disease because of the nature of the business. Farmers have coped with avian diseases for centuries.

Farmers have also coped with the mutants of various viruses, which occur because of the proximity of livestock and because virus strains jump from one creature to another.

But now, the problem is different. People move from farm to farm, fly from one country to another and could carry the virus with them, turning the problem from local to global within days, even hours.

This is why the world is scared that this virus, if it mutates to transmit directly from human to human, could create a pandemic.

"In other words, these poor creatures are almost literally sitting ducks when the disease hits," says Narain in the latest issue of CSE publication Down to Earth.

First Published: Mar 17, 2006 12:22 IST