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Avian Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest | The Nation

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Avian Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Is it Mother Nature or Father Human Greed whom we have to blame for avian flu?

About the Author

Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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A few days ago the Union of Concerned Scientists sent out an e-mail saying, "A study by the international non-governmental organization GRAIN suggests that avian influenza is spread primarily by the global poultry trade, not migratory birds or free-range poultry operations as has been suggested, and that confined factory farm production contributed to its mutation into its current deadly form. The organization tracked the movements of the disease over time and found that they were correlated, not with migratory bird routes or the locations of free-range farms, but with integrated trade networks involving poultry, eggs, meat, feathers, manure and animal feed. US Department of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns warned that bird flu will almost certainly come to the United States."

An article on the website of the biodiversity agency Grain titled "Fowl Play: The Poultry Industry's Central Role in the Bird Flu Crisis" is yet one more reminder that things are not always as they tell us they are. Maybe the migrating swallows and arctic terns are not carrying the H5N1 flu virus after all, and why do we have to wait for the Union of Concerned Scientists to hip us to the knowledge that the disease rarely occurs in small family flocks but rather mostly in farm factories where chickens are raised by the tens of thousands inside, under unsanitary and debilitating conditions that make them soft prey for the virus. Overly large, unregulated agribusiness is at it again.

All of this is but a new version of an old truth: There is no money, or not enough money, in health. From a business point of view prevention of disease or disability is a chump's game, whether you are talking about Canadian geese, a Rhode Island red hen or a person. The big bucks are in sickness. You can make money getting people sick by selling them bad food and make more money selling them remedies for what you did to them.

So the same Grain article also brings the startling news that "one of the standard ingredients in industrial chicken feed, and most industrial animal feed, is 'poultry litter.' This is a euphemism for whatever is found on the floor of the factory farms: fecal matter, feathers, bedding, etc. Chicken meat, under the label 'animal byproduct meal,' also goes into industrial chicken feed. The WHO (World Health Organization) says that bird flu can survive in bird feces for up to 35 days and, in a recent update to its bird flu fact sheet, it mentions feed as a possible medium for the spread of bird flu between farms. Russian authorities pointed to feed as one of the main suspected sources of an H5N1 outbreak at a large-scale factory farm in Kurgan province, where 460,000 birds were killed. Yet globally, nothing is being done to tighten regulations or monitoring of the feed industry. Instead it often seems that the industry, not governments, is calling the shots."

Thus the don't-fence-me-in, don't-regulate-me cowboys of the food business may kill us by breeding sick chickens and may kill the chickens by feeding them contaminated food--which, of course, they sell. Yippeee-ay-yea, bring on the pandemic! But there is yet another way of wringing legitimate profits out of this disease, which, if the most pessimistic predictions turn out to be true, may cause one out of five of us to turn up our toes and head for the great chicken factory in the sky.

That other way is selling us expensive medicine that does not work in case we come down with avian flu. The medicine in question is Tamiflu, which may cure Tamiflu but doesn't cure avian flu. Nevertheless, they can't make the stuff fast enough. They are back-ordered into the next century.

If that were not fun enough, Grain has also discovered that Donald Rumsfeld is a major stockholder in Gilead Sciences, which licenses Tamiflu. Whether or not Tamiflu is of the slightest use to avian flu sufferers, it is of great profitability to the secretary of defense, since Gilead is expected to make $118 million from Tamiflu sales this year. Somebody has laid a big, fat egg here.

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