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The end of chicken

Economic devastation caused by bird flu points to plant-based future

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 declared states 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, from how to dispose of millions of potentially infected bird carcasses to rising egg prices to job losses.

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 serious shortages.

Outdated, dirty and risky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.

According to 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 affected 634 people), water contamination from massive piles of bird poop and serflike working conditions for growers (as exposed by comedian John Oliver).

Moreover, rising consumer interest in animal welfare is creating negative PR. For example, the latest 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 immune-compromised chickens.

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, those lobbyists 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 chicken.

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 7-Eleven 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 November.”

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 foods.

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 brands) purchased Gardein for $154 million in December, betting big on a plant-based future.

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 declining.”

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 firm.

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.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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