Bird flu and intensive farming: Are we to believe the accusations of animal welfare associations?

If even 1% of all the accusations that animal welfare associations have been spreading for decades about intensive poultry farming (and not only) were true, we would have to ask ourselves why the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the European Commission in Brussels, … still allow such activities to continue if they are as delinquent as European poultry farming is. The answer is simple: because the laws that control poultry production are, in the vast majority of cases, fully respected. Laws that regulate the entire poultry production chain, the welfare of farmed animals, farm hygiene, disease prevention and the wholesomeness of the food produced. The authorities in charge of control (in Italy, they are veterinarians of the ASL (local health authorities), carabinieri of the NAS (food safety unit)) supervise, through audits, inspections and sampling, with the aim of guaranteeing that the productions, from the fields to the table, respect the legislative requirements, that is, comply with the quality, organoleptic and health level that European legislators want for the consumers of our continent and our nation. It must be said that European food quality standards are the highest in the world. Precisely for this reason, any third country that wants to export food products to the European Union must submit to stricter standards and adopt a kind of production double track in its own territory. One of the pillars supporting the European strategy on food quality ‘from farm to fork’ is the protection of the health and welfare of farmed animals through disease prevention. And an important chapter of the laws regulating this aspect concerns precisely avian influenza. The attempt by animal welfare associations to make people believe that infectious diseases affecting domestic poultry are all caused by intensive/protected farms is well known: reality shows us that the opposite is true. It is the intensive/protected farms that, by applying appropriate prevention and eradication plans for the main viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases, manage to guarantee the highest level of animal health, which translates into better food safety and quality for the consumer. Nowadays (2022), a farmer, by implementing good structural and managerial production practices, is reasonably certain to bring to the end of the production cycle 97-98% of the chickens he ‘coops’ at the beginning. In the past, on rural farms and homesteads, the average mortality rate of animals was, on the other hand, very high, due to the impossibility of applying adequate preventive measures against major avian diseases. To understand how diseases decimated the domestic poultry population in the past, one only needs to know (and read) the publication of Professor Edoardo Perroncito (1847-1936), a parasitologist and pathologist at the Scuola Superiore di Veterinaria in Turin in the 19th century, who in 1878 first described Avian Influenza (then called Typhoid Epizootics).


Cover of the publication by Prof. Edoardo Perroncito


Excerpts from that document illustrate the severity and spread throughout northern Italy (and other countries) of Avian Influenza and other diseases in poultry farming at the time. In the foreword, the author implies that at that time the diseases were much more widespread than the studies show:

“… unfortunately, the history of chicken diseases is full of congenial facts, although they are often not conveniently studied…”

He then clearly describes the areas affected by the pathological events, described in the terms then known:

“… the enormous damage done to poultry farming by a contagious epizootic disease that dominated in Lombardy from 1789 to 1798. At that time it was also found extensively in Piedmont … so cholera was described as being observed in gallinaceous and palmipeds, or in each other, in 1831 in Hungary, Moravia, Silesia, Bohemia and Lower Austria, in 1832 in Russia, in 1836 in Munich, in 1850-51 in France, in 1854-55 in Italy, in 1855-56 in Prussia, Bohemia and Piedmont. In 1832, a large number of departments in France fell victim to an epizootic disease of the gallinaceous… in the same year, a similar disease was described by Bignami in the Mantua region. In 1849, it reappeared in the Seine department and neighbouring departments. It re-emerged in 1851…(Ercolani)… described in 1861 epizootics of carbuncles, cholera and typhus in birds of the low court… Rivolta often saw epizootics in gallinaceous birds… and believes that they were nothing more than carbuncles… Dr. Dr. Piana described in 1876 an epizootic disease in domestic fowls and palmipeds in the province of Bologna … the same disease developed in 1864 in Upper Vienna … I wanted to mention the main epizootic diseases observed in fowls because it is very important to point out the frequency and the damage they have caused to the poultry industry at all times …’.

Those paragraphs effectively summarise the thousands of tales handed down by the generations before us, which described a poor society in which family incomes were mainly used to satisfy food needs as far as possible. In those days, poultry diseases were a tragedy, not so much because of the death of the animals as because they left entire communities without a livelihood. Communities composed mainly of young and very young birds in the middle of their growth phase and therefore exposed to severe deficiency states. Slow-growing breeds could not produce the amount of meat or eggs needed to feed the population and the pantries remained dramatically empty. That is why it is important to take this leap backwards, towards our origins, to fully understand that all this suffering has been avoided for the population of developed countries, thanks to the productive capacity of intensive (better said protected) breeding and new genetic lines.

Nowadays, the animals’ diet is balanced, their welfare is respected (otherwise they could not grow properly) and diseases are kept under control through hygiene, vaccinations and not through the use of antibiotics, as is still continually flaunted today by those who seek to sling mud at poultry farming: taking Italy as an example, in 2021 90% less antibiotics were used in broiler farming than were administered in 2011. Moreover, thanks to the production capacity and efficiency of intensive farming, the price of poultry products has remained practically constant over the last century, contributing, together with the growth of average wages, to the increase in purchasing power and living standards in developed countries.

The graph below, compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (USA), spans a little over a century and highlights the amount of animal products that can be purchased with the proceeds of one hour’s work from an average wage. This quantity has increased exponentially since these foods are produced on intensive/protected farms and of those analysed, eggs are by far the cheapest (and most nutritious) food.


Chart prepared by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (USA): shows the amount of animal products that can be purchased with the proceeds of one hour’s work from an average wage over the last 100 years.


In third world countries, where protected animal husbandry is not yet widespread, the food shortages described in the 19th century are unfortunately still present to some extent.

This is why in 2019 the FAO entered into an agreement with the International Poultry Council, an association that represents 95 per cent of poultry producers globally, to spread more and more sustainable poultry production around the world, capable of meeting the nutritional needs of the world’s growing population. The accusations of spreading epidemics levelled at intensive/protected poultry farming by animal welfare associations are therefore disproved by the facts: during a bird flu epidemic, such as the one that occurred recently, the stalls in shopping centres did not empty, as was the case in the 19th century, when protected farms did not exist and diseases emptied the housewives’ pantries.

The millions of animals to be slaughtered in 2022 to maintain control over poultry epidemics are less than 2% of the total, a small amount when compared to annual production. Epidemics in the past, on rural farms, often went so far as to kill all the animals reared.

At present, niche poultry products, organic and slow-growing productions, which monopolise the communication in television programmes, have high prices and can satisfy consumers who do not have financial problems, but we are all deeply aware of the moral duty to be able to feed, with healthy, nutritious and low-cost food, also that part of society that struggles to make ends meet with the monthly budget, which is unfortunately increasing dramatically nowadays.

The extraordinary result of having high quality food at affordable prices for all is only and exclusively achieved by the production efficiency of intensive livestock farming, which for this reason is also more sustainable: studies by the FAO’s (GLEAM)

which deals with analysing the environmental impact of livestock production (including the production of greenhouse gases), have shown that for the same amount of feed produced, intensive/protected poultry farms, due to the high production efficiency achieved, pollute less and their production of greenhouse gases, already reduced to 1% of the total, is continuing to fall sharply.

In summary, it can be said that in poultry farming, extensive, free-range and slow-growing methods have coexisted side by side for decades with intensive/protected production and are not in opposition. The former have higher selling prices and are aimed at the high-end consumer (in terms of spending power), while the latter meet the food needs of the less affluent part of the population, which, however, represents the majority of the population. The difference between these two types of farms is a bit like that between mountain trails and motorways: the former are nice to look at, but if we need to transport goods and advance the economy of a nation, we cannot do without the latter. In order to improve the quality of life of future generations, the solution will not be to eliminate motorways (as animal welfare associations would like to do with intensive livestock farms), but rather to minimise their impact with ameliorative measures, such as the installation of noise or vegetation barriers and the widespread adoption of less polluting vehicles.

Animal welfare associations easily achieve their goal of defaming and discrediting an important production sector also because a great distance has been created between the average consumer and the breeding world.

EU demographic studies show that the majority of citizens are convinced that animals are mistreated on farms, but the same studies inform us that the majority of people say they have never been inside a farm.

If we were to visit a state-of-the-art intensive/protected livestock farm, we could verify that, thanks to new technologies, it does not produce odours, does not emit dust, and with the methods used to dry manure, does not encourage the proliferation of flies or other insects. Manure is increasingly used for biogas production, thus not contributing to groundwater pollution and eutrophication phenomena. Furthermore, the visual environmental impact of new farms is greatly reduced by planting vegetation barriers. Therefore, the time has come for a ‘better’ understanding of intensive/protected livestock farms in order to have a correct and complete view of their activity, their social and vital function, and not to give way to misinformation from those who spread news distorted by ideological blinkers.

The Editor