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Judge greenlights lawsuit against USDA regarding its bird flu response

April 5, 2021

A US federal court has ruled that a lawsuit alleging that the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) broke the law with its response to the 2014-2015 bird flu outbreak can proceed. The plaintiffs in the suit — the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Mercy for Animals, and Farm Sanctuary — claim that the USDA’s response constituted a risk to human and animal health.

The plaintiffs argue that during the outbreak, the USDA incentivized poultry producers to provide more room for birds so that they could move around more naturally. They claim that the USDA failed to properly consider the potential health and safety implications of this approach, while it also failed to address the role that ‘factory farming’ plays in infectious disease outbreaks in high-density confinement livestock operations.

The HSUS described the USDA’s response to the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — otherwise known as bird flu — as “shortsighted and dangerous.”

Variants of bird flu have plagued poultry producers around the world since the 1990s. The USDA requires flocks that have been contaminated with bird flu to be decimated in order to stymy further spread.

Between 2014 and 2015, the disease ravaged 15 US states, leading to the euthanization of 48 million birds, according to the Congressional Research Service. Egg-laying hens were the largest affected segment with 12% of the US egg-laying flock being euthanized.

According to the HSUS, during the 2014-2015 HPAI outbreak, poultry producers euthanized birds by packing them in cages and shutting off ventilation in their facilities, leading to a build-up of heat and carbon dioxide that eventually killed off the chickens.

The HSUS further claims that the USDA paid poultry producers who euthanized their flocks in this manner, and allowed them to subsequently restock their facilities with animals.

“Under the [USDA] plan, the companies that stuffed these animals in cages or warehouses are to be reimbursed with taxpayer dollars and allowed to continue cruelly confining birds so that this wasteful, cruel, and self-defeating cycle can begin again,” the HSUS wrote, adding that over 50 million birds egg-laying hens, broilers, turkeys, and other poultry were killed between 2014 and 2016 in an effort to contain an HPAI outbreak, costing the US economy as much as $3 billion.

Following the filing of the lawsuit in April last year, the USDA filed a motion to dismiss it on the basis that the plaintiffs lacked standing.

The USDA claimed that it could not be held responsible for negative outcomes associated with its response, and the argumenet that its response could cause further outbreaks was too “speculative.”

But the US District Court for Central California has now ruled that the plaintiffs have standing and the suit can proceed. This means the USDA will have to answer the questions put to it and provide discovery regarding its response to the HPAI outbreak.

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