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As bird flu persists, Ohio must live up to its animal care standards

As bird flu persists, Ohio must live up to its animal care standards

Animal Care Animal Health News Public Health

By Vicki Deisner and Gwendolen Reyes-Illg

This past holiday season, Ohio had the grim distinction of losing more birds in the avian flu outbreak than any other state —more than 4.5 million.

As recently as December 14, more than half a million hens tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in Darke County, marking the fifth case in the state since mid-November. Nearly all of these birds lived in industrial egg production operations that closely confine hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of birds to a single location, increasing their vulnerability to contracting HPAI. Regardless of whether they show signs of disease, birds living in facilities where HPAI has been detected must all be killed in order to slow spread of the virus. 

Many Ohioans would be horrified to learn, however, that the state permits producers to use the most inhumane killing method available: ventilation shutdown plus heat (VSD+). VSD+ involves turning off the airflow in a barn and ratcheting up the temperature to induce heat stroke — essentially, baking trapped animals alive. Birds endure pain, fear, and difficulty breathing for hours before they lose consciousness and die. Those who manage to survive can suffer for days before they are killed by another method.

Fourteen years ago, Ohio voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment establishing an expert panel of farmers, veterinarians, animal welfare advocates, food safety experts, and others to oversee the state’s livestock care standards. One of the rules under Ohio’s administrative code spells out euthanasia as “the causing of humane death, through the rapid loss of consciousness followed by cardiac and respiratory arrest and the ultimate loss of brain function.”

Even when confronted with widespread disease eradication, the rule continues, “alternate methods must minimize animal pain and suffering to the extent reasonably possible while considering the threat to human health and safety.”

Despite these stated requirements, USDA records show that in September 2022 more that 3.7 million HPAI-exposed hens in Defiance County were killed by VSD+, among other methods. While it is too early to know how many animals have been killed in the latest incidents via induced heat stroke, the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s proposed revisions to its euthanasia rules don’t require industrial farm operators to adopt more humane methods.

Recently, the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board invited public input as part of a regular review of its euthanasia standards. Our organization, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), submitted comments urging the board to explicitly bar VSD+ as a method of mass euthanasia or “depopulation” (i.e., the rapid destruction of animals in response to urgent situations). We also suggested revising state standards to encourage the use of more humane alternatives, such as nitrogen gas-filled foam, which causes animals to rapidly lose consciousness and die within minutes. Taken together, these changes would make Ohio’s standards more consistent with those of the World Organisation for Animal Health, the leading international authority on the health and welfare of animals.

AWI also urged the board to revise its standards to better prioritize animal welfare throughout all phases of the animal disaster management cycle, including planning and preparedness.

As we enter a new year, more than 77 million birds have already died nationwide due to HPAI and the numbers continue to climb. As Ohio continues to grapple with this epidemic, it must honor both the letter and spirit of its standards by explicitly barring mass killing of animals by intentional heat stroke. Better yet, the state should honor its voters’ original directive by strengthening its rules to reflect best management practices for the care and well-being of livestock, including not subjecting animals to a cruel death.

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