Economic devastation caused by bird flu points to plant-based future
July 10, 2015
Michele Simon @MicheleRSimon
While the western United States is suffering from crippling drought, the Midwest
is reeling from an unprecedented outbreak of avian flu, mostly among egg-laying
chickens and other forms of poultry.
The numbers are staggering. According to the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, 223 outbreaks in 15 states have been
identified over the past six months, affecting more than 48 million birds, with
more cases expected. The hardest-hit states, all of which have
of emergency, are Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin. About 11 percent
of the nation's egg-laying hens have been slaughtered out of fear that they
might be infected.
The cause of the outbreaks is still
unknown, making containment a challenge, and its effects are far reaching,
how to dispose of millions of potentially infected bird carcasses to
rising egg prices to
The federal government could
spend half a billion dollars to compensate farmers for their losses. The
economic toll in Minnesota and Iowa alone was
estimated at $1 billion as of May. State agencies are
covering myriad costs, including no-interest loans to farmers, the extension
of unemployment benefits, payments for dead birds, equipment to kill birds and
updated testing facilities.
Adding to the economic crisis,
more than 40
countries have restricted or placed bans on U.S. poultry imports because of
the virus. Food manufacturers are relying on egg imports because of
Outdated, dirty and risky
Although the outbreak appears to be slowing, this will not be the last crisis to
plague the U.S. poultry industry. Horrendous conditions in bird factories and a
resource-intensive, greedy business model make egg and chicken production a
ticking time bomb -- one that remains extremely vulnerable to disease outbreaks.
Fortune reporter Erika Fry, "the most troubling aspect of the crisis is its
implications for the viability of industrial-scale farming." Ironically, the way
birds are housed is meant to control their environment, protecting them from
outside infections. While scientists scratch their heads over how such a
virulent pathogen spread so quickly, Fry notes how "the poultry apocalypse
exposes the food system's vulnerability to such diseases."
It's not just influenza outbreaks that place intensive poultry factories at
risk. Other dangers include antibiotic-resistant
salmonella (the latest outbreak of which
water contamination from massive piles of bird poop and serflike working
conditions for growers (as exposed by
comedian John Oliver).
consumer interest in animal welfare is creating negative PR. For example,
exposé of mistreatment, this time at a Costco egg supplier, has fomented
public outrage. The incident resulted in a
legal complaint filed against the big-box retailer for deceptive
advertising. Speaking of legal risks, we are starting to see
lawsuits filed by food companies against egg suppliers affected by the flu
and unable to deliver on contracts. And the list goes on.
It's painfully clear we need a better, cleaner, less risky system.
We cannot build a resilient food system on the backs of billions of
Those concerned about climate change, public health and the vitality of our
economy have long pushed for a transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy
sources. We must take a similar approach to convert our food system from a
dirty, outdated industry to one based on clean, sustainable production methods --
starting with a reconsideration of chicken and eggs.
Sustainable and animal-free
Despite egg lobbyists' desperate
claims that consumers haven't lost confidence in the nation's egg supply,
admit it could be two years before a full recovery. In the words of United
Egg Producers CEO Chad Gregory, the egg industry's world has "changed forever."
Already ahead of the curve, several innovative food companies are stepping up to
offer foods that mimic the taste, texture and cooking properties of eggs and
Among those at the forefront of an animal-free future is Hampton Creek, a San
Francisco–based startup that uses plant products such as pea protein to build a
better egg. Just Mayo, the company's first brand, is already available as a
replacement for traditional mayonnaise from major retailers such as
and food service companies such as
Compass Group. The latter serves Hampton Creek's animal-free cookies as
well. Amid the bird flu crisis, Hampton Creek has been
fielding numerous calls from food manufacturers eager to do business with a
more sustainable, disease-free egg supplier.
According to Inc.'s Jeff Bercovici, "To cope with the demand, the startup is
adding two more manufacturing facilities to the five it has up and running
already; it's pushing the launch of its liquid-egg product, Just Scramble, up to
Another Bay Area startup, Clara Foods, is seeking to reinvent egg whites using
synthetic biology, without the headaches of industrialized hen production. It's
backed by a new wave of
investors offering $250,000 in seed money for cleaner versions of animal
While plant-based varieties of America's favorite white meat have been on store
shelves and restaurant menus for some time, they're seeing a surge in interest
from high-profile investors. The startup Beyond Meat, for example, has received
financial backing from Bill Gates and Twitter co-founder Biz Stone.
Veteran veggie "meat" maker Tofurky just introduced a
line of animal-free
"chicken," and Gardein offers its "chick'n"
in nearly every form imaginable, from tenders to scaloppine. The food
conglomerate Pinnacle Foods (the owner of Green Giant, among other leading
purchased Gardein for $154 million in December, betting big on a plant-based
In contrast, earlier this year,
investment advisers warned against banking on the stocks of leading animal
meat producers such as Tyson, given how "meat consumption has been steadily
Powering our buildings and cars with fossil fuels is neither safe nor
sustainable. Nor is attempting to feed a growing population by cramming more and
more animals into warehouses. We simply cannot build a resilient food system on
the backs of billions of immune-compromised chickens.
The good news is that breeding animals for food on a massive scale will soon be
obsolete; the risks are simply too large and the costs too great. Already taking
its place are smarter, cleaner and more economical approaches to food
production. And not a moment too soon.
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of
Eat Drink Politics, the author of
"Appetite for Profit: How the
Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back" and an attorney
with Foscolo and Handel, the food law
Jamie Berger is the media campaigns coordinator at
Mercy for Animals, an
international nonprofit dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and
promoting compassionate food choices and policies. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiecberger.