Food & Power – As Bird Flu Hits Dairy Cows, Consolidation Amplifies Risk

‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌

iStock-166085487-9900000000079e3c.jpgPhoto courtesy of iStockAs Bird Flu Hits Dairy Cows, Consolidation Amplifies RiskThe agriculture industry is closely watching a novel outbreak of bird flu among dairy cattle. Outbreaks have been confirmed in 28 herds across eight states, and even though the virus hasn’t infected any beef cattle, beef futures markets tumbled over fear that cautious consumers will eat less beef.Bird flu has forced farmers to euthanize more than 82 million chickens and turkeys since 2022, and this spillover into a new species raises concerns about more disruption to the food supply and further viral mutations. There have been two confirmed human cases of bird flu in the U.S., but authorities say the public health risk remains low.

Consolidated food production is more vulnerable to disruptions from diseases and plays a role in spreading them. While scientists do not know exactly how dairy cows are catching bird flu, we do know that the cramped conditions and genetic homogeneity on concentrated industrial animal farms create an ideal environment for disease transmission and evolution. Corporate consolidation also raises the risk that dominant food companies will use bird flu disruptions as an excuse to raise prices for consumers and push down prices paid to farmers.

“On a long-term basis, we must prepare ourselves for disease outbreaks like this and we’re not prepared,” says Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF). “Given the high degree of concentration, an external shock like this will have a far greater impact on the industry than if the industry were more disaggregated and less vulnerable to huge reductions in production.”

Although the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza that we call bird flu has been around for decades, starting in 2020 cases spiked among wild birds and spilled over into commercial U.S. poultry flocks in early 2022.

While bird flu had already been detected in other mammals, the U.S. detected the first-ever case of H5N1 bird flu in cattle, specifically dairy cows, in late March. Since then, the virus has been found in 28 dairy herds across eight different states, spanning a large geographic area with hot spots in Michigan and Texas.

There are still a lot of unknowns about how this spillover will affect the dairy industry and if the spread will stop at dairy cows. So far bird flu has not been detected in beef cattle or hogs, but it has infected two people. One worker in Texas caught the virus after interacting with a sick cow and an incarcerated worker contracted it while killing infected birds at a farm in Colorado. Both patients had mild symptoms including pink eye and fatigue and both recovered.

Public health agencies insist that there’s no need to panic about a human pandemic right now. Experts have not found any evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of H5N1. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analyzed the genetic sequence of these latest bird flu viruses and found they are still not well adapted to people. Farms are working to keep milk and eggs from infected animals out of the food supply and public health officials say that pasteurized milk and properly cooked eggs are safe to eat anyway. All told, the CDC says the health risk to the U.S. public remains low, but the agency will continue to study the virus. After all, the global track record for this strain of bird flu is deadly. According to the World Health Organization, there have been 887 confirmed human cases of H5N1 avian flu since 2003, and 52% of those infected died.

Consolidation in the U.S. livestock industry exacerbates the threat of bird flu. Large farms raising thousands of animals in tight quarters quickly spread disease and put animals and the food supply at greater risk. For instance, earlier this month Cal-Maine had to euthanize nearly 2 million chickens when bird flu was detected at just one of its facilities.

The good news is that, so far, bird flu is not nearly as disastrous for cows as birds. Dairy cows have recovered from bird flu within two weeks and their main symptoms are temporary lethargy and decreased milk production. The Texas Agriculture Department found that cows in recovery produce as much as 40% less milk, but there’s little concern for now that the disease will create widespread milk shortages or impact prices.

Still, government agencies are taking steps to prevent further spread and disease mutation. Scientists still do not know how the disease spread so rapidly in dairy cows. At first officials suspected that dairy cows contracted the flu from wild birds, but scientists are now investigating the possibility of cow-to-cow transmission.

USDA researchers have found the highest viral loads on cow udders and in milk and suspect that bird flu could spread through milking equipment. USDA also said the disease could spread when farmers transport cows from southern parts of the country to the north in the spring, a new vulnerability brought on by dairy consolidation. There’s more dairy cow transit between the upper Midwest and the South than ever before as large dairies ship young cows to warmer regions to be raised and ship them back once they’re old enough to produce milk. Bovine veterinarian James Reynolds told Voxthat these dairy cow migrations didn’t exist at a large scale 20 years ago. USDA recently recommended that farmers test their dairy herds for bird flu before moving them between states, while 17 states have restricted cow imports from affected states.

Oddly enough, bird flu fears have already hurt beef producers, despite there being no cases of bird flu among beef cattle. Beef cattle futures and cash markets dropped this week over fear that consumers could start eating less beef to avoid contracting bird flu, even if the risk is mostly perceived.

“The cattle market is so highly concentrated and so void of meaningful competition that any hiccup, whether true or fabricated, can send prices tumbling,” Bullard said in a weekly address to R-CALF members last week.

Bird flu could also hurt the market for eggs. Farmers culled 43 million egg-laying hens due to bird flu in 2022, bringing egg inventories down 29% and sending prices soaring. Some critics contend that large egg companies like Cal-Maine took advantage of the shortage to gouge consumers. At the height of the shortage, Cal-Maine’s revenues doubled and profits rose 718%. In May 2022, USDA noted that the “price increase [in eggs was] much larger than the decreases in production.”

Considering that both egg companies and beef packers have been accused of collusion, antitrust enforcers should be on alert to ensure that food companies do not abuse this crisis to take advantage of consumers. After all, a recent FTC report found that grocery companies profiteered off pandemic supply chain disruptions and inflation.

Find and share this story originally published on Food & Power.

What We’re Reading

· A new report by a PhD anthropology researcher from Brazil exposes how the Brazilian government’s support for JBS has largely enriched a handful of executives and investors at the expense of working people. Their research found that plant workers’ wages hover just above Brazil’s federal minimum wage of US $275-$393 per month and in areas where JBS operates reliance on government assistance (as an indicator of poverty) has only grown. (Raisa Pina)

· An updated analysis of USDA’s agriculture conservation cost-share program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), found that “disproportionate shares of program dollars go toward high-cost practices that have little to no climate or conservation benefit,” namely, methane digesters and other manure management investments for large, industrial animal operations. (Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy)

· The Biden administration is paying farmers to plant cover crops and reduce tillage to fight climate change by storing carbon in the soil. However, Reuters’s interviews with soil scientists found that five out of nine of them doubted that these practices would permanently sequester atmospheric carbon. The other four and the USDA said these practices can sequester carbon but noted that the amount and duration can vary. (Reuters)

OMI-blackcopysmall-9900000000028a3c.pngAbout the Open Markets Institute

Our team of reporters, lawyers, and economists works to revive competition policy to build stronger democracies, more just and equitable societies, more innovative and sustainable economies, and a more secure and peaceful world.

Follow F&P on Twitter | Subscribe to this Newsletter | F&P Website | Contact Us

Written by Claire Kelloway
Edited by Anita Jain Open Markets Institute
655 15th St NW Suite 310
Washington D.C., 20005