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No Littering
– by Lee Pitts

You have to be a full-blown optimist to have detected any good news in the announcement of this country´s third mad cow in Alabama. But the good news was there, buried deep inside the New York Times instead of on the front page. In most metropolitan daily newspapers you had to really be looking hard to find the news blurb about the most recent bovine to join the mad cow fraternity. And those consumers that did read the story seemed to have taken little notice and went right back to eating their burgers and steaks. The good news is that mad cow is old news.

At the same time the mad cow in Alabama was being dug up and her existence was being buried in newspapers, there was some really good news to report about those mad cows that have made a mess of our business these past few years. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization announced that the number of mad cows is declining significantly around the world. FAO said that cases of BSE worldwide have been dropping at the rate of 50 percent per year during the past three years and that in 2005, just 474 animals died of the disease, compared with 878 in 2004 and 1,646 in 2003. That is down from tens of thousands of cases a little over a decade ago. Even better news, only five human deaths in 2005 resulted from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human form of BSE. Five deaths (all in the United Kingdom) are still five too many but that compares favorably with nine deaths in 2004 and 18 in 2003.

Extrapolate those numbers out and you can see that we will soon put all this madness behind us. As an older generation of cows that ate feed containing meat meal dies off we should be able soon to say goodbye to mad cows once and for all. That is of course, if people are obeying the feed ban. (It is important to note that our third mad cow was ten years old, meaning she almost definitely got the disease from eating tainted feed before the ban.) But just as we seem to be getting a handle on BSE another deadly disease is about to take its place. In fact, on the day most major newspapers buried our third mad cow inside their news sections on the front page they carried stories about another disease carried by non-humans: bird flu.

You could say that BIRD FLU is the next MAD COW.

For All The Wrong Reasons

One would think that cattlemen would have little to fear from avian influenza. After all, it affects poultry, not cattle. A black-hearted person might even relish the thought that poultry producers may be about to experience similar discomfort to what cattlemen have gone through these past few years. And who knows, an epidemic of bird flu in this country might even be good for cattle prices by decreasing demand for poultry. All this assumes, of course, that we have our own chicken coop in order.

Sadly we don´t, for ours is still filled with chicken poop.

This may come as a surprise to you but the cattle industry is STILL feeding poultry litter to cattle. Even knowledgeable cattlemen these days are surprised to learn that cattle are still eating poultry fecal matter. They had assumed, like most everyone else, that we had stopped the practice back in 2004 when then former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy Thompson, said that the FDA would prohibit the use of chicken pen litter in cattle feed. End of story.

Except that it did not happen!

A day after the Alabama mad cow was confirmed Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa again called for an end of the use of poultry excrement as cattle feed. To his credit Tom Harkin wants poultry poop eliminated as a cattle feed, even if it is for the wrong reason. Harkin thinks there is a "small risk" that poultry litter could somehow spread BSE. Stephen Sundlof, the director of the FDA´s Center for Veterinary Medicine says, "You can never say the risk is absolutely zero. Yes it is possible, but the probability of that occurring is very, very remote." But even if it´s for all the wrong reasons, Harkin is right that the feeding of poultry litter should be stopped.

Guilt By Association

Southern cattle producers still feed chicken litter to cattle as a cheap source of protein but there is an even more compelling reason why chicken litter is fed to cattle: poultry farmers have no other place to put it! Few other economical and environmentally viable options exist for getting rid of the mountainous mounds created in this nation´s vast chicken houses. The FDA doesn´t seem to be able to ban the practice because the FDA sees no other environmentally sound way to get rid of the stuff. Says Sundlof, "adding chicken litter to cattle feed is one of the primary methods of waste disposal for the chicken growers."

But that doesn´t make it a good reason to feed the stuff to cattle!

How ironic that cattle have helped factory-farm chicken producers solve one of their biggest problems and in the process vault over beef as America´s favorite protein. Had cattle not acted like bovine garbage disposals those mountains of manure would have served as roadblocks to poultry´s advance. Chicken pluckers might not be crowing quite so loudly today if cows hadn´t cleaned up their mess.

No, the feeding of poultry waste to cattle should not be stopped in this country because it might spread BSE. There is a far more compelling reason to ban the practice. If poultry producers are about to get hit with all the bad press that avian flu will bring why should cattle producers risk being found guilty by association?

Coming Soon To A Chicken Ranch Near You

What is now known as bird flu was first detected way back in 1878, but the strain of the flu that the world is worried about today, the deadly H5N1 strain, first appeared in Scotland in 1959. Birds that were struck with the fatal illness passed the disease to other birds through direct contact and through through their fecal matter. Somehow, probably through migratory birds, the virus that arose in Scotland found its way to China and Southeast Asia where H5N1 has been simmering for more than a decade. You probably first heard of bird flu in 1997 when the deadly strain hit Hong Kong, infecting 18 people and killing six. In an effort to stop the deadly virus the Hong Kong government immediately ordered the killing of all 1.6 million chickens, ducks, quail, partridges and geese in the general vicinity. The slaughter of all this poultry did slow the deadly strain down but health officials were overly optimistic in thinking they had stopped it. Just four years later the deadly virus popped up again in Thailand and Vietnam. Once again those governments killed millions of birds in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. Meanwhile the sale and consumption of chicken plummeted in the affected regions.

From what we now know, migratory birds from western China then spread the deadly strain to Europe and Africa. Even though you may already be tired of hearing about bird flu, the disastrous effects of the disease, especially in Africa, cannot be overstated. In many African countries a family´s wealth is measured by the number of poultry they possess. When told that their birds had to be destroyed many villagers smuggled their birds out to sell to neighboring villagers. And thus the disease spread to Africa, Russia, the Middle East, and Europe, where the reaction has been especially panicky. And who can blame the Europeans? They are still reeling from mad cow disease and now they get hit with another food scare.

Avian influenza has spread in just the past couple months to 30 additional countries. Eleven European Union countries have already reported at least one suspected or confirmed case and the deadly Asian strain of avian influenza H5N1 is expected to arrive in the United States sometime this year when migrating wild birds bring it with them when they return to their summer breeding grounds. U.S. government officials have promised to test 100,000 wild birds this year in Alaska and the Pacific Coast flyway, which is where they believe the bird flu will first enter this country. Bush administration officials are trying to allay fears by convincing the public that the feds know it´s coming and are ready for it. But scientists secretly admit that there is nothing that can be done to stop the spread of H5N1. These same scientists once thought that killing millions of chickens and ducks would contain or even eradicate the virus but now their only hope is to kill enough time so that human vaccines can be developed. If they lose this race with time the deadly virus could cause a pandemic around the world that would make mad cow disease seem like a chest cold.

Mad Cows And Sick Birds

There are eerie similarities and dramatic differences between mad cows and birds with the flu. Whereas mad cow has infected thousands of cows, BSE has only resulted in some 150 deaths total, over more than a ten-year period and almost all of those fatalities have been in the U.K. Already there have been 186 human cases of avian flu with 105 deaths just in the last three years, according to the World Health Organization. More than a quarter of those deaths, 29, have occurred this year. BSE is winding down while avian flu is just getting started with far greater potential for disaster.

Like mad cow disease, H5N1 is rarely transmitted to humans and also like BSE, bird flu cannot be contracted by eating the meat if it is cooked properly. According to the World Health Organization, "There is no epidemiological evidence that people have become infected after eating contaminated poultry meat that has been properly cooked." Unlike BSE where people get the disease by ingesting dangerous malformed prions, people can get bird flu with close contact with sick or dead birds.

At the moment the USDA is planning to decrease its mad cow testing, indicating that we have come nearly to the end of mad cow´s life cycle. But while the USDA will will not permit Creekstone, Harris and others to BSE test cattle for export to Japan, the chicken industry has vowed to test all domestic flocks for avian flu before sending them to the supermarket. The two industry strategies could not be more different. Those poultry flocks infected with some strains of bird flu will be entirely eliminated, and considering the size of factory farms today the implications could be substantial. Clearly the poultry industry could be far more severely affected with H5N1 than the beef industry has been with mad cow. And really, there is no reason whatsoever for the beef industry to get sick over bird flu. EXCEPT . . . there is that poultry litter!

We should stress that scientists have not found that the use of poultry litter as a food source for cattle can spread avian influenza.

Having said that, many scientists fear that the deadly bird flu virus will mutate into a form that is more easily transmitted among people and for which the human body has no immunity or antibodies. According to the Los Angeles Times, scientists have recently found that avian influenza has infected domestic cats and a stone marten in Germany, increasing concerns over its ability to cross into mammals. Experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that passes easily from person to person, or from bird to mammal to person, thereby sparking a pandemic in which millions could die. In view of all this, doesn´t it seem like the prudent thing to do would be for the cattle industry to ban the feeding of poultry litter to cattle?

In reality, the scientific community doesn´t know what to expect from bird flu, just like they didn´t know what to expect from BSE. Now would be a good time, before H5N1 has reached our shores and before consumers start thinking to strongly about bird flu, to remove any factors that may cause consumers not to buy our product. Bird flu is clearly not a burden the cattle industry must bear, unless that is, amidst a bird flu epidemic the public discovers that poultry litter is still being fed to cattle.

Others seem to be taking the threat far more seriously. Canada and Europe have already banned feeding poultry feces to cattle. Our own federal regulators have already banned the poultry industry from using two groups of human antiviral drugs to treat their flocks for fear that may reduce their effectiveness in humans. China used one of the drugs last year to treat flocks which caused resistance to the drug strain. The U.S. has been stockpiling drugs for a possible avian-flu outbreak in humans. They are taking precautionary measures. Shouldn´t the beef industry do the same?

Senator Tom Harkin, has called on the USDA and FDA to ban poultry litter from cattle feed when FDA revises its feed ban rules later this year. Those proposed revisions are scheduled to be released July 1. It will be the first tightening of the rules since the FDA barred feeding meat meal to cows in 1997. We should take this rare opportunity to tighten those restrictions further by stopping the use of poultry litter as cow feed, just as Tommy Thompson promised back in 2004. (While we are at it we should also ban the use of blood and restaurant leftovers for cattle feed.)

Southern poultry/cattle producers will flop around like a chicken with its head cut off if they are forced to find other disposal methods for their litter. But if you still doubt that we should ban the practice try this little experiment: Next time you sit down with some urban friends to enjoy a nice steak tell them that the beef may have come from an animal that was fed chicken poop as part of its diet.

By eliminating poultry litter as a food source for cattle we will be insuring the good health of the beef industry at a time when our competitors could be feeling the ill effects of bird flu.