Avian Flu: Big Chicken Is Bringing Us Big Problems

They’re at it again: The largest food companies and their unchecked corporate practices have created a problem, and now they are putting you on the hook to pay for it through taxpayer bailouts and grocery price gouging.

As the highly pathogenic avian influenza rips across the country, the dominant food corporations want you to believe this outbreak is out of their control — but their industrialized practices are largely to blame for today’s cyclical outbreaks of this influenza.

Make no mistake, this system is working just as corporations intended. Today’s industrial model of food production, supported by our government, has minimal risks for the corporations perpetrating these practices because they can simply push their costs off on the rest of us.

Lay of the Land: Avian Flu

To be clear, the avian flu wasn’t created by industrial agriculture — it has been documented since 1878. But this disease has become more frequent and deadly as our food system has consolidated in recent decades.

Just how deadly are we talking? When the U.S. experienced a major outbreak of the avian flu between 2014-2015, there were more than 200 detections on commercial operations and just over 20 detections on backyard flocks. More than 50 million egg-laying hens and turkeys were culled or died from the disease during this outbreak. This was the largest avian flu outbreak ever recorded in the country — the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) called the outbreak “arguably the most significant animal health event in U.S. history.” Response and further preparedness activities to address the outbreak totaled $950 million, also making it the most expensive animal health incident recorded in the country.

Less than a decade later, it happened again: Avian influenza was confirmed in a U.S. commercial flock in February 2022. Since that outbreak, 82 million birds — mostly egg-laying hens — have been culled. To put this into context, that’s more than 22% of the entire U.S. poultry flock.

And just this month, Cal-Maine Foods — the largest egg producer in the country — is reporting yet another news-worthy outbreak in its facilities. The disease even transferred species in March 2024, jumping to dairy cattle and then from a cow to a human.

Industrial Agriculture’s Role in Outbreaks

It’s no coincidence that outbreaks have become more frequent and deadly in recent decades. Industrial conditions create optimal circumstances for large-scale disease outbreaks because crowded indoor facilities allow infectious pathogens to spread more readily. These dangerous conditions are the standard practice for industrial poultry production: As United Egg Producers readily admits, their egg-laying hens are housed “in stacked rows of cages.”

While this practice makes the birds vulnerable to disease outbreaks, it also cuts input costs for companies on the front end. It’s a tradeoff they’re willing to make. Culling diseased birds has simply become the cost of doing business for these companies, and they’re not even on the hook to pay for the consequences of the outbreaks when they happen — as we’ll discuss later on, taxpayers are.

And what about those dairy cattle infected with avian flu? It’s no surprise that industrial practices may be behind that, too. Experts point to a type of cattle feed additive called poultry litter, a not-so-delectable mix of poultry excrement and feathers scraped from the floors of industrial poultry production plants. While other countries have regulated feeding animal proteins to cattle due to disease spread concerns, this cheap feed is perfectly legal in the U.S.

Our food system prioritizes cost-saving measures by externalizing its production expenses above all else, and it has left us vulnerable to business decisions that threaten public health.

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Farm Consolidation Magnifies Impacts of Disease Outbreak

The consolidation of livestock and poultry production — fewer farms with more animals per farm — leaves us more vulnerable to large-scale disruptions to our food supply chain when these outbreaks occur.

Over the last 30 years, the midpoint flock size for egg layers increased more than 10-fold from about 118,000 to 1.2 million. That means that when one chicken contracts bird flu, our supply chain can lose one million birds. Consider Cal-Maine’s most recent outbreak — they had to cull 1.6 million laying hens and 337,000 pullets.

It’s the same story for America’s dairy cattle. In his recent video, R-CALF USA’s Bill Bullard connects how our concentrated industrialized food system leaves us more vulnerable not just to disease outbreaks themselves — but also to the market impacts like lower prices paid to farmers and higher grocery prices. He notes that before the average dairy herd size increased from 58 to over 400 cows per farm, “they were inherently less vulnerable to any localized disease outbreak and the U.S. milk supply was inherently more secure.” As a result of today’s concentrated dairy production industry, the market is quick to react to scares like avian flu-infected dairy cattle because of how vulnerable production is — and because there’s so little competition in the industry.

Taxpayers on the Hook For Corporate Irresponsibility

USDA will provide indemnification funds for avian flu when a flock is infected and culled, and that funding comes right out of taxpayers’ pockets. This program cost taxpayers more than half a billion dollars in 2023 alone. The real kicker is that this funding was funneled primarily to giant poultry companies.

“These payments are crazy-making and dangerous,” said Farm Forward’s Andrew deCoriolis in speaking about USDA’s livestock indemnity program with The New York Times. “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.”

Another Excuse For Price Gouging?

Despite outbreaks that led to massive cullings, these corporations still reported billions of dollars in profits.

Jennie-O Turkey — a subsidiary of Hormel Foods — was the largest recipient of indemnities between 2020 and May 2023 at nearly $75 million. Hormel Foods reported net sales of $12.1 billion in FY23, an operating income of $1.1 billion, and “returned a record amount of cash to [their] shareholders in the form of dividends.”

We caught dominant egg corporations red-handed last year, driving up prices under the guise of avian flu while recording record profits — even though the leading company, Cal-Maine Foods, hadn’t reported a single case of avian flu at the time. Now, egg prices are on the rise again, jumping from $2 a dozen in the fall to $3 a dozen in February. These price hikes aren’t as high as last year, but we must monitor prices and financial reporting to ensure they don’t try it again.

It’s Time To Fight Back

With the security of a taxpayer bailout and the ability to freely price gouge consumers, industrial poultry operations have no motivation to change their practices.

Don’t buy the narrative these corporations are pushing. Our food system is so vulnerable because of active choices made by the largest corporations and a complicit government. We all suffer the consequences of this failed system while shareholders take money off the backs of the rest of us, and we need to fight back with all we’ve got.

Written and edited by: Jessica Cusworth, Sarah Carden, Angela Huffman, Christian Lovell, and Joe Maxwell