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A new report by Compassion in World Farming has warned factory farming could ultimately create a bird flu human pandemic

Only radical reform of the poultry sector and a move away from so-called factory farming will end the spread of bird flu and reduce the “ticking time bomb” risk of it developing into a “serious human pandemic”, a new report by Compassion in World Farming has claimed.

The campaign group’s report, titled ‘Bird flu: Only major farm reforms can end it’, claimed that – contrary to popular belief – wild birds were “typically victims of the disease rather than the cause, and it is spiralling out of control due to the rise of factory farming”.

However, the paper’s claims have already come under fire from the poultry sector. The British Poultry Council slammed its assertion that farming was the main driver of the disease as “irresponsible”.

Citing evidence from the international Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza – which counts the likes of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Royal Veterinary Collage among its members – the report, published today, said a “reassessment” of the nature and sustainability of poultry production systems was now required.

It argued that depending purely on biosecurity measures in poultry supply chains “does not tackle the root of the problem”. Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) risks were “high where (poultry) production occurs in high-density settings”, it added, because these farms created “ideal conditions for the spread of disease”.

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These “cramped and stressful systems give viruses a constant supply of new hosts”, the report said. They enabled infection to spread very quickly among birds and had the potential to evolve into new strains at the same time.

“In such environments, highly harmful strains can rapidly emerge. And these strains can then be carried back outside factory farms, spread to wild birds and back to farms again through, for example, contaminated clothing and equipment.”

The report said such a “spillover” from farmed poultry into wild birds had occurred on “multiple occasions” since the mid-2000s.

And as a result, wild birds were now being caught up in “a cyclical situation where the disease, fuelled by the factory farming system, is spiralling out of control”. The latest and most deadly strains of the virus had now adapted to wild birds – which, up until recent years, had seen “little harm” from bird flu outbreaks, it added.

This meant it was “circulating independently in wild populations, with some outbreaks occurring in remote areas with no poultry”, the report claimed.

And without action, the disease’s increasing spread to other animals could worsen and even jump to humans – “creating a real pandemic risk”.

CIWF’s report is urging governments to implement a three-point action plan, which includes introducing mass vaccination to slow the spread of avian flu, radically restructuring the poultry industry by adopting smaller flocks with lower stocking densities, avoiding clusters of poultry farms and introducing more robust breeds.

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It also called for a change in the way pigs were farmed “as factory farmed pigs can act as ‘mixing vessels’ to create new pig, bird and human viruses”, the group said.

“Bird flu is like a ticking time bomb. Unless we wake up and take urgent action to end factory farming we will simply be unable to stop its rapid spread across the globe or reduce the risk of a serious human pandemic developing,” said report author and CIWF chief policy advisor Peter Stevenson.

“Cramming animals together in factory farms is not only totally inhumane, it’s creating the perfect place for bird flu and other viruses to spread and mutate into more dangerous strains.”

But in response, British Poultry Council CEO Richard Griffiths hit out at the report’s claims, insisting avian influenza was carried to the UK by migratory birds.

“As a result, it spreads amongst the domestic wild bird population,” he said. ”No bird has avian influenza when it goes on to farm. All incidents derive from outside the farm through wild bird incursion. When disease is detected, the farm is culled so disease is not spread. Therefore, indoor production methods do not aid in the spread of disease.

“Conflating disease control with your opinion on how we produce food in the UK is an irresponsible way of approaching our primary concern here: ensuring the health of our birds and the sustainability of a world-class food system producing nutritious and affordable food. In these times, that matters more than ever.”

British Egg Industry Council CEO Mark Williams echoed Griffiths’ comments. He said: “The report demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of how AI has been spread, which is disappointing. In Europe, bird flu was spread by infected wild birds returning from their summer breeding grounds, and not by commercial poultry flocks.

“At present, the most important tool we have to combat the threat of AI is bio-security, irrespective of flock size or system of production. 

“As joint-chair of the joint industry/government AI vaccination taskforce, we are working with government to develop a UK-wide AI vaccination strategy, which includes the need to obviate potential hurdles and find solutions. The BEIC is fully focused on finding a cost-effective vaccination solution against HPAI. Even when that is available, strict biosecurity measures will always remain the key defence against HPAI.”