It’s All Connected: Bird Flu, Factory Farms, and Corporate Greed

Published Apr 19, 2024


Food System

The fragile, consolidated factory farm system has created the conditions for bird flu to flourish. To protect our food, health, and resiliency, we need change, fast.

The fragile, consolidated factory farm system has created the conditions for bird flu to flourish. To protect our food, health, and resiliency, we need change, fast.

In April, the United States saw its second-ever human case of bird flu. An avian epidemic is spreading through animals (and a few people)  nationwide. It has jumped to dairy herds in several states, including in Texas, where the virus infected a dairy worker. Unfortunately, this is no accident — the impacts of this bird flu are magnified by our highly consolidated food system, dominated by factory farms. 

In the wake of COVID-19, epidemiologists are on high alert for zoonotic diseases (those that jump from animals to humans). While the risk of avian flu to the public is low, this current outbreak is a flashing warning sign that we need change, fast.

Industrial animal agriculture is great for winning corporate profits and corporate power — at the expense of everyone else. This system is a threat to public health, and it’s incredibly fragile. Without action, we could face far worse down the line. 

Factory Farms Provide the Perfect Environment for Pathogens to Spread

You would be hard-pressed to imagine an environment more delightful to diseases than a factory farm. Hundreds of thousands of animals are crammed together in unsanitary conditions, often wading in their waste. 

Moreover, corporations selectively breed animals to share traits so they’re dependably profitable. This means factory-farmed animals share genetic material, which in turn means one sick animal can easily infect all the rest. 

To make matters worse, when so much of our food supply is concentrated in just a few massive factory farms, shocks ripple quickly throughout the supply chain. Three-quarters of U.S. egg-laying hens are raised on just 347 factory farms. For instance, an outbreak at a facility owned by Cal-Maine — the country’s largest egg producer — resulted in the company culling nearly 2 million chickens to stem the spread of bird flu.

This isn’t just bad for the animals. When disease floods factory farms, farmworkers and rural communities are on the frontlines. And this threat of disease comes on top of the perennial public health threat posed by factory farms — their air and water pollution sickens communities across the country with toxic contaminants.

Our Food System Is a House of Cards 

Factory farms are terrible for people and animals, but they’re lucrative for corporate profits. And right now, our food system is designed to put corporate profits first. 

For decades, the federal government has allowed agribusinesses and grocery goliaths to grow in power and size. They’ve consolidated into bigger and fewer corporations, majorly cutting competition in many markets. 

As a result, a handful of mega-corporations dominate entire supply chains, from seed to grocery store shelf. And this trend has made our food system increasingly fragile. 

Rather than a broad, diversified web of small- and medium-sized producers, corporate consolidation puts our food system on stilts — a single blow, like a pandemic, can send the whole thing stumbling. 

At the same time, we lack policies that would help make food accessible and affordable for everyone, even in times of crisis. Not only do corporations have way too much power to sway the system how they want — we have no grain reserves to draw on in times of need; we lack price floors to prevent corporate profiteering off farming inputs, like feed.

This All Allows Corporations to Take Advantage of Us, Too

In 2022-2023, we saw another bird flu outbreak that also caused egg prices to spike. But these prices never fell back to pre-2022 levels. The reason? Corporate greed.

It’s a strategy we’ve become very familiar with in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. A crisis may drive up prices, but corporations take advantage of the expected increases to raise prices even more and boost their profits. 

A big reason why they can do this is the same consolidation that helped make supply chains so fragile to begin with. The more power corporations have in the market and the less competition they face, the more they can raise prices with impunity. 

We’re seeing this exact dynamic with eggs. Cal-Maine has spent the past 25 years buying up almost two dozen smaller egg producers and is now the largest U.S. supplier of eggs. It owns huge swaths of the supply chain, too, from making feed to breeding chicks to managing flocks. This has allowed it to take advantage of market conditions, including bird flu, to raise egg prices.

Last year, record-high egg prices drove a six-fold increase in profits for Cal-Maine. Yet, the company didn’t even see an outbreak of bird flu in its own farms until December 2023.

We need policies to combat this corporate profiteering — and currently, Congress is considering one such policy. The Price Gouging Prevention Act would make such activity illegal, helping to rein in corporate power and greed and lower prices across the economy.

Our Food System Is in Dire Need of an Overhaul

The current bird flu outbreak calcifies what we’ve always known — highly consolidated markets are less resilient than a regional, diversified food system. When crises hit, there is a huge threat to public health and lots of food. 

These problems did not come about by accident, nor are they inevitable. Our current food policy is the direct result of Big Ag’s lobbying and the policies that Congress passes for them.

But luckily, we know how to change course — and it starts with moving off the factory farm model. We need to pass the Farm System Reform Act, which would stop new factory farms from being built and dedicate $10 billion to help growers pivot to more sustainable and resilient methods.

We also need to break up the agribusiness giants that control every step of our food chain. Biden has already taken important steps to make markets more competitive and break up corporate power, but he must go further and rein in factory farms.

In the face of threats like climate change and possible future pandemics, we can’t afford to maintain the status quo. We need policies that put our health and safe, affordable food above corporate profits. 

Our food system needs an overhaul — starting with a factory farm moratorium. Tell your representatives to support the Farm System Reform Act!

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