Meat linked to terrifying new disease sweeping the world: 'Ticking time bomb'

Experts suspect a new variant of HPAI could be mutating because of the way we farm animals.

Background - rotisserie chickens. Inset - bird flu under the microscope.
The spread of highly pathogenic bird flu has been linked to modern farming. Source: Getty

The world’s growing love of meat has been linked to the terrifying strain of avian influenza that’s killed millions of birds, thousands of wild animals, and has even spread to humans.

Although wild birds have carried low pathogenic forms of the virus for centuries, the cramped, often dirty conditions common in modern farming have likely created the perfect conditions for it to mutate into dangerous variants.

Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at Australian National University and Canberra Hospital is upfront that he loves meat, but has concerns about industrial farming methods which are used to fill supermarket shelves and fast food restaurants with cheap chicken, eggs, pork, beef and dairy. He argues the widespread use of antibiotics to prophylactically prevent disease indicates there’s something wrong with these systems.

“My own view is you need to give antibiotics to animals if they're sick. But if you're having to do it routinely and feed it to 1000 animals at a time, there is a problem with your farming practice,” he said. “Using antibiotics to fix problems is because you need to change your methods to prevent that from happening. It could be vaccination, but it could be less crowding and changing feeding habits”

  • Modern-bred meat chickens can reach slaughter weight at just 36 days. Despite their large size, they are still immature and often make a cheeping sound like tiny chicks.

  • It's hard to breathe inside modern chicken sheds because of the ammonia from the waste.

  • In the US cattle can be fed waste from chickens.

  • Industrialised farming has become increasingly popular since the 1960s.

Left - tiny chicks in a broiler farm. Middle - adult chickens in a broiler farm. Right - dead chicken pieces.
Thanks to modern farming methods, broiler hens can reach slaughter weight in just 36 days. Source: Getty

Related: Are KFC, eggs and dairy safe from the spread of bird flu in Australia?

Last month, the HPAI strain of avian flu was reported to have spread to cows in Texas, and Collignon has suspicions about what caused it to jump species.

Unlike in Australia, cows in the United States can be fed waste that’s scraped from the bottom of sheds used to house chickens, populations of which have been devastated by the virus in that country.

“One of the things that worries me is in the US they are allowed to feed them litter, which is a mixture of waste from chicken. And in birds, the main way flu is spread is faecal-oral,” he said.

“The problem now in the US is giving cows food they wouldn’t normally eat. Look at Mad Cow Disease in England, we turned cows into meat eaters – we fed them sheep.”

Peter Stevenson OBE, is the chief policy advisor at Compassion in World Farming, an international non-profit that advocates for improvements in animal welfare. Nine months ago it warned avian flu was a “ticking time bomb” and called for mass vaccinations of poultry, and reform of industrialised poultry and pig farming systems.

Noting there is a “very, very strong link” between poor animal husbandry and the rise of zoonotic pandemics, Stevenson believes it's likely farming has played a role in the rise and spread of HPAI.

“In the large poultry sheds there are a huge number of birds which are hosts for the virus. It can move very quickly amongst them, perhaps mutating as it does so,” he said.

“That highly pathogenic bird flu can then get out of the poultry sheds, for example, through ventilation systems, and infect wild birds. So you’re getting a virus that’s continually evolving.

“At the core of it is the keeping of poultry in very crowded, stressful conditions. These are birds that are not particularly in good health. Both the egg flock and the meat flock – the broilers – have been genetically selected for either very high egg production or very fast growth rates, and this is putting a huge stress on them, so these are relatively frail birds, very vulnerable to disease.”

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