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Proletarian issue 17 (April 2007)
Bird flu: spread by capitalist greed
Bourgeois 'solutions' can only make matters much worse
The recent outbreak of avian influenza at the Bernard Matthews plant in Holton, Suffolk has further discredited the industry’s claims that the H5N1 strain is being transferred round the globe by migratory birds and has drawn attention to the dangers of capitalist farming procedures.

The government and Bernard Matthews Ltd originally protested at the idea that there could be any connection between the outbreaks in Hungary and the arrival of bird flu in the British plant. However, not only did government inspectors then find a wrapper within the plant from a slaughterhouse in Hungary’s bird-flu infected area, the UK Veterinary Laboratory Agency analysis showed a high genetic similarity between the H5N1 viruses found in Suffolk and Hungary. “These results indicated that a goose farm in Hungary, rather than migrating wild birds, must have been the source of the infection.” (‘UK vets claim bird flu came from Hungary’, The Financial Times, 13 February 2007)

This outbreak, at the beginning of February, resulted in the culling of the entire stock of 159,000 turkeys on one of Bernard Matthews’ 57 farms across Norfolk and Suffolk. The 159,000 birds were housed in just 22 sheds, at a capacity of over 7,000 birds per shed. In addition, 500 workers at the plant have been sacked, 130 of whom were offered the miserly sum of £100 as a one-off payment. In a statement, “Bernard Matthews blamed the ‘regrettable’ job losses on a 40 percent slump in sales of its turkey products since the outbreak.” (‘Matthews lays off 130 turkey workers’, The Guardian, 20 February 2007)

Bird flu is nothing new

Avian influenza has been around for years and, as international environmental organisation GRAIN states, it has “coexisted rather peacefully with wild birds, small-scale poultry farming and live markets for centuries” . (‘Fowl play: the poultry industry’s central role in the bird flu crisis’, Grain, February 2006)

What, then, has altered in the last decade that has resulted in the virulent form of bird flu known as H5N1? It is this strain that has been responsible for 271 human cases of bird flu, of which 165 were fatalities, and the deaths of hundreds of millions of chickens, ducks and turkeys either directly from the disease or through culls to prevent its spread.

The health of the birds seems like the most straight forward answer. A healthy chicken or turkey with a strong immune system is one that would be better able to fend off threats of infection; it also provides healthier, more nutritious food.

Conditions of birds in poultry production

Intensive farming is exactly that: intensive. Large poultry farms breed birds intensively not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of the speeded-up lifespan from egg to meat. Under capitalism, where profit is the motive force, the quality of the poultry produced for sale is sacrificed for quantity; even though the meat and eggs produced are destined for human sustenance, as far as capitalism is concerned, they are just so many more disposable commodities.

It has already been stated that the infected Bernard Matthews plant housed over 7,000 turkeys in a single shed. This number of turkeys in one space seems like a recipe for the rapid spread of any kind of disease. However, 7,000 birds per shed is a fairly low density when comparing across the poultry farming industry where “as many as 40,000 birds can be kept in one shed and reared entirely indoors without ever seeing the light of day”. The effects of this, as the journalist continues, are “just like an overcrowded nursery of wheezy toddlers when the latest winter bug comes knocking” . (‘So who’s really to blame for bird flu?’, The Guardian, 7 June 2006)

The birds are reared in tight, crowded conditions with limited room for any kind of movement. They tend to stand on a thick layer of impacted litter and droppings and are unlikely to see any daylight except, possibly, en route to the slaughterhouse. This warm, nutrient-rich environment creates ideal conditions for the spread of disease. Moreover, the birds are routinely dosed with various antibiotics to fend off potential infections and with hormones to speed up growth, both of which reduce immune function and weaken the birds against diverse strains of disease.

The potentially rapid spread of the H5N1 disease within such densely packed areas is the reason that all 159,000 turkeys at the Bernard Matthews plant were killed, when fewer than 200 turkeys had died directly from the disease.

Yet it is not only the rate of spread of this virulent strain of avian flu that is increased by the conditions within such intensive farming, it is also mutation of diseases that is enhanced. Bird flu has been around for centuries, but with the spread of the low-pathogenic versions through such a high density of birds, the potential for mutations of the disease is immense and has resulted in the virulent strain of H5N1 developing.

Thus not only do the conditions under which the birds are reared affect the spread of disease, they also allow for diseases to develop and become increasingly lethal and hard to control. In 2005, the Health Protection Agency undertook tests on chickens on supermarket shelves that showed over half to be “contaminated with multi drug-resistant strains of the potentially deadly E coli bug”. (Guardian, ibid)

In addition to the potential threat of disease, the general quality of the meat or eggs being produced is highly dubious when conditions of production are so intense. The produce that is sold on the market enters our food chain; it is consumed by us and thus not only the nutrients but also the bacteria, viruses, antibiotics and hormones that are contained within the chicken or turkey meat get into our bodies.

Spread of disease across the globe

The H5N1 strain first took hold in Asia in 2003, where millions of birds have been culled in attempts to limit the spread of the virus. By the beginning of February this year, ie, in just four years, this virulent strain has now been found in over 50 countries in Asia, African and Europe.

The spread of the disease between plants has been the source of much debate. Governments and large agribusiness continually lay the blame for the transfer of H5N1 on wild bird migration and small-scale outdoor farming. Yet as The Lancet stated back in April 2006, “despite extensive tests of wild birds for the disease, scientists have only rarely identified live birds carrying bird flu in a highly pathogenic form, suggesting these birds are not efficient vectors for the virus. Furthermore, the geographic spread of the disease does not correlate with migratory routes and seasons. The pattern of outbreaks follows major roads and rail routes, not flyways.” (‘Avian influenza goes global, but don’t blame the birds’)

Taking the Bernard Matthews plant as an example, the meat that is finally packed ready for sale on supermarket shelves could have travelled as many as 2,000 miles plus those required to take it to market. This is due to the transfer of the produce at various stages between Bernard Matthews’ British and Hungarian plants. Caroline Lucas, writing in The Guardian on 27 February 2007, points out that “tonnes of poultry products are regularly ‘swapped’ between UK and Hungary. Eggs are sent to Hungary, the chicks are reared and slaughtered there, the slaughtered turkeys are sent back to the UK for extraction of breast meat – the rest returned to Hungary for manufacture of turkey sausages.”

In addition to the transportation of both livestock and meat produce, the global trade in poultry feed is another factor in the potential spread of disease. Poultry feed, like most industrial animal feed, has the standard ingredient of ‘poultry litter’. “This is a euphemism for whatever is found on the floor of the factory farms: faecal matter, feathers, bedding etc … The WHO [World Health Organisation] says that bird flu can survive in bird faeces for up to 35 days.” (Grain, op cit)

Agribusiness consolidation

Nevertheless, despite organisations, including the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and various governments now partially acknowledging evidence demonstrating that the transportation of livestock is the primary culprit for creating the potential for a pandemic of H5N1, the restrictions being applied to agribusinesses are minimal.

Instead, there have been bans throughout Europe and Asia on (mostly small-scale) backyard poultry, with an emphasis on keeping birds within an enclosed environment. Margaret Say, the Southeast Asian director for the USA Poultry Egg Export Council has been quoted as saying that “We cannot control migratory birds but we can surely work hard to close down as many backyard farms as possible.” (‘Bird flu: a bonanza for “Big Chicken”’, Grain, March 2007)

The argument against backyard poultry and outdoor farming is being used as a justification for further reducing the number of small-scale farms and increasing the hold of large-scale capitalist intensive farming. “Today, more than ever, agribusiness is using the calamity to consolidate its farm-to-factory-to-supermarket food chains as its small-scale competition is criminalised.” (Ibid)

Vaccination to reduce potential threat

Vaccination, as we all remember from the foot and mouth epidemic of 2001, is not a preferred option for the large-scale farming industry, being both costly and time consuming. On intensive farms, where the number of livestock can be in excess of 40,000, ensuring vaccination of all the animals is a serious and expensive task. The economic incentive to vaccinate livestock is further reduced when the average life of a chicken on a factory farm is just five weeks, while vaccinations can take up to three weeks to take effect.

The preferred option in the case of an outbreak is to cull the birds that could potentially be infected and ban outdoor production, thus keeping all birds under lock and key. Professor David King, the government’s chief scientist, made it abundantly clear in 2006 that in his view the arrival of the virus would mean “organic farming and free-range farming would come to an end”. Defra (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) has stated that, in the event of an H5N1 outbreak among indoor flocks, producers will be allowed to simply shut down shed ventilation systems, leaving the birds inside to slowly suffocate to death. (Quoted in ‘So who’s really to blame for bird flu?’ op cit)

However, vaccination is still big business and the pharmaceutical companies are not missing a trick. With the virulent strain of H5N1 threatening not only the bird population but also the human population, there is an opportunity for the pharmaceutical companies to make a killing (pardon the pun) out of a vaccination against the human form of bird flu.

Recently, Indonesia, which has been most affected by H5N1, has been condemned by governments, especially in the imperialist west, for withholding samples of bird flu; it has been accused of being ‘greedy’, ‘misguided’, ‘short-sighted’ and ‘nationalistic’. In reality, Indonesia has only stopped sharing actual samples of the strain, not the data and information that has been obtained from them, having stopped sharing samples in January “after learning that CSL of Australia had developed a vaccine by using an Indonesian strain without permission”. (‘Jakarta refuses to give bird flu samples to WHO’, The Financial Times, 15 March 2007)

The development of the vaccine by CSL Group using an Indonesian strain is the result of the WHO’s highly questionable system whereby member states are expected to supply just four WHO collaborating centres with all samples of avian flu isolates. The cynicism arises from the fact that the four centres are based in the imperialist heartlands of Britain, the United States, Australia and Japan. Furthermore, the information from these centres is passed to a central research hub in the United States, where the big pharmaceutical companies are able to access it and develop their drugs.

Indonesia’s stance against sharing the samples of bird flu seems a sensible response to the likely consequence of having to pay millions of dollars for vaccines developed by the big pharmaceutical companies (which under capitalism are run for profit, not to prevent the spread of disease).

As GRAIN clearly stated, “When Indonesia said ‘no more’, it was saying ‘this isn’t fair’. It is not right that poor countries supply ‘raw materials’, for free, to a global [capitalist] pharmaceutical industry that concentrates market power and reaps huge profits through monopoly privileges called patents, especially when it is the poor countries that are facing the biggest public health problems.” (‘Bird flu: a bonanza for “Big Chicken”’, op cit)

There is not scope within this article to expand on this point at length, but it is clear that the question of patents, and the monopoly they give, not only in the pharmaceutical but in all areas of capitalist industry, cannot but stand in stark contradiction to the needs of humanity.

The Swiss drug giant Roche has been given the exclusive licence to produce Tamiflu, the trade name for oseltamivir, an anti-viral believed to have some effect on reducing the spread of avian flu in humans. Roche was given the licence by the US drug company Gilead Sciences.

Despite requests from some 150 generic manufacturers and governments for sub-licences to produce the vaccination, Roche has been reluctant to offer any, although it did eventually issue a limited number of sub-licences after increased international pressure. Roche’s reluctance is unsurprising, as the sales of Tamiflu went up by 400 percent in 2005 after the WHO’s announcement of the potential threat to humans from bird flu, with Gilead Sciences’ royalty earnings from the patent increasing by 166 percent.

In 2005, the US administration announced, as part of its measures to fight a potential bird flu pandemic, a budget of $1.4bn to purchase stocks of Tamiflu. The corruption and tight control of capital was highlighted when then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was revealed to own “somewhere between $5m and $25m of Gilead equity, making him possibly the largest shareholder” and to sit on the board of Gilead Science along with “George Schultz, former US Secretary of State and Bush campaign advisor, Etienne Davignon, Vice-Chairman of Suez-Tractebel and Honorary Chairman of Bliderberg, and John W Madigan who among other things is on the Defense Business Board, a corporate advisory council to the US Department of Defense”. (Information from ‘Fowl play ...’, op cit)

Compatibility with capitalism

A potential pandemic of bird flu is not a threat that is likely to disappear, especially as over the last four years the spread of H5N1 has travelled across three continents. Yet the industry’s response is to focus on reducing the scope for outdoor farming without any limitations or standards being put on the density or conditions for rearing livestock indoors.

The reality is that capitalist economics does not allow any scope for production that is not driven by profit and expansion. In the case of the food industry, the health and quality of the chicken, turkey, or whichever animal is being bred, is merely part of a financial calculation aimed at production of profit, not a reason in itself for production.

The tendency towards ever larger, more intensive farms is inevitable under capitalism. The Independent stated on 28 February, that “experts say the public must decide whether they wish to pay more in order to support a network of small mixed farms that populate the countryside with picturesque black and white cows. Or if they prefer a cheap, more intensive, barn system.” ('Are supermarkets changing our way of life, and should we be alarmed?; The big question' by Martin Hickman, The Independent, 28 February 2007)

The flawed logic in this statement is that no consumer would ‘wish’ to have more intensive farming where the quality of the food is not only questionable but could be lethal. It fails to appreciate that consumers can only buy what they can afford to pay for, and since low-end wages are kept at the minimum level required for subsistence, very many workers are simply not given the real option of affordable, wholesome food.

Return to small-scale not the solution

The arguments against intensive farming very often lead to the idea that the culprit is the scale of farming, leading naturally to the conclusion that reverting back to small-scale farming will improve the quality of poultry production. It is certainly true that if fewer birds were farmed, even under intensive conditions, the detrimental effects currently seen on the health and quality of the birds would be reduced. However, surely the preference all round would be for poultry production that is undertaken first and foremost to produce good quality meat and eggs.

Large-scale production does not have to go hand in hand with current intensive farming practices. Under capitalism, of course, they do go hand in hand, and few people will need reminding that corners are often cut further to reduce the cost of production. However, coordinating production on a large scale while having the greatest consideration for the health of both livestock and consumers could certainly be undertaken if production were carried on not for profit but to satisfy the needs of the population, ie, to provide nutrient-rich food for all.

It is often suggested that such an idea is utopian, yet looking around at the technological capabilities that human ingenuity has developed, coordination of production for such goals is well within our reach; the only obstacle is the control by the capitalist class of the means of food production.

The real utopians are those who believe and rally round the notion that capitalism can be tamed; who daydream that capitalist economics just requires “strong and concerted pressure from civil society, to cut through the hype and hysteria … and start building food systems that put people before profit” . (‘Fowl play ...’ op cit)

Putting people before profit is not something that capitalism is capable of, no matter how philanthropic the owner of any individual capitalist enterprise may wish to be. If the competitors are selling their goods at a cheaper price, to a population that is getting poorer, the philanthropic owner will soon be swallowed up by a more ‘successful’ (ie, profitable) capitalist.

Putting people before profit will only be only possible once the capitalist minority has been overthrown and the driving force of society is the working class, whose interests lies in advancing the health and prosperity of humankind.


We should be aware of the potential threats of bird flu, E coli, Salmonella and other such diseases within our food, not to mention the hormones, antibiotics and other additives that are affecting the food chain. However, if we really want to improve the quality of our foodstuffs, the solution cannot be just buying organic and free-range produce and supporting local farmers’ markets, all of which ‘consumer choices’ are only open to the more affluent sections of society.

The only solution that can meet the needs of all the people, rather than just a privileged minority, is one that focuses attention on the complete overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist state, where food production, along with all other aspects of the economy, will be run for the benefit of the working class. Our party delegation that visited the Democratic People's Republic of Korea recently, for instance, can bear witness to the excellent quality of the organic, additive-free, naturally-produced food which is all that is available to that country's people, while in Cuba, too, organic farming is compulsory.

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