Opinion

With bird flu here, your choices could make all the difference

By Emily Rice
July 10 2024 - 5:30am

This May, the Victorian Department of Health confirmed that the first Australian case of human A(H5N1) avian influenza, a highly pathogenic strain, had sent a toddler to intensive care in Melbourne.

WATCH: What is bird flu?

Little more has been said about this case, but as avian influenza has infected at least 10 Australian poultry farms in the past month and a half, it's time to face the very real possibility that our desire for drumsticks is about to bite us in the tail feather in a big way.

Already this year, more than 1 million farmed birds have been killed in an attempt to curb the spread of avian flu.

It's not just the 700 million chickens and 30 million ducks Australia slaughters for their flesh each year who are at risk - the outbreak has had a devastating impact on wild birds, too, and a plan is being formulated to protect Phillip Island's little penguins from contracting the virus.

They wouldn't be the first penguins to fall victim - in January, bird flu was detected, for the first time, among penguins in Antarctica.

And we can't afford to write this off as a problem "for the birds": the highly pathogenic H5N1strain has also been detected in cows, foxes, opossums, bears, and even dolphins in the US.

This strain is believed to have originated on a commercial goose farm in China, and its worldwide spread should remind us that as long as we confine birds for any human use, disease will make its way to wild vectors whose migration makes them powerful pathogen pollinators.

Intensively breeding animals for food is as risky a business as it is a cruel one.

To meet demand, animals are increasingly being packed onto extremely crowded factory farms that are brimming with animal waste, breeding pathogens alongside the baby animals destined for slaughter.

We Australians like to believe that "our" meat comes from animals who romp in fields and that choosing "free range" eggs at the supermarket is a noble act, but the reality is that around 90 per cent of the hundreds of millions of birds raised for meat in Australia come from factory farms, and "free range" farms still only afford laying hens a mere square metre of space each.

Chickens are intelligent, curious animals who form social bonds and enjoy complex communication with other chickens.

By choosing vegan options, you can limit the spread of disease. Picture Shutterstock
By choosing vegan options, you can limit the spread of disease. Picture Shutterstock

Hens are dedicated mothers, clucking to their eggs before they hatch in the same way many human mothers chat to their baby bump, but on Australian egg farms, male chicks are deemed "useless" and either gassed or ground up alive before their loving mother can ever take them under her wing.

The females are sentenced to 18 months of intense laying, usually in dark, dank cages. After this time, they are considered "spent" and slaughtered.

Well-meaning consumers genuinely believe that terms like "high welfare" mean something.

But to give an idea of just how little welfare labels actually mean, consider this investigation, released by PETA, which documented abuse inside Australia's largest chicken producer, Baiada, supplier to the Lilydale "Free Range" brand.

Workers crushed birds' heads under metal bars and punched them.

One chicken's severed head was even used as a finger puppet, and gross as it is to even contemplate, at least one unwitting Aussie then ate the rest of that bird.

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Animal advocates avoid consuming bird flesh to prevent such cruelty, but avian flu isn't some far-off fear drummed up by activists. It's a real and potentially fatal illness poised to tear through a world not yet fully recovered from COVID-19.

With billions of animal - and potentially soon many human - lives on the line, I'm not being so trite as to say, "I told you so."

What I am saying is far more empowering: your choices matter. When you buy animal-derived foods, you fund factory farms, which are petri dishes for pathogens and, in turn, pandemics.

By choosing vegan foods, you help reduce the risk of another animal-borne virus outbreak.

I promise you won't taste the difference between plant-based nuggets and those made of birds, but the difference between life as we know it and a stint in ICU is as plain as the daylight that birds on farms hardly ever see.

  • Emily Rice is senior communications manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).