Endangered Species 

Free-range poultry may be the first casualty in our war on avian flu.

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Just off San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley, Mateo Rutherford gives a tour of his backyard farm. He, co-owner Jim Montgomery, and their four housemates live on a lot that's almost twice as deep as most Berkeley properties. Back past the lima-bean vines and winter greens, the new milking shed being constructed from sustainable materials, and the apple trees is the animal pen, which takes up an eighth of the yard. Enclosed in a half-covered, half-open pen bordered by eight-foot fences of wood and chicken wire are a dozen or so chickens, a dozen ducks, one rabbit, seven goats, and a flock of pigeons. A conversation with Rutherford is punctuated by fluttering wings, burping goats, and the occasional quack.

Rutherford and Montgomery raise their animals for eggs, milk, and meat -- most of which will end up on their own dinner table. "My feeling is that it's better to live a good life and have someone eat you than live in a cage for three times longer and be an egg manufacturing machine," Rutherford says.

Until they become a meal, though, these chickens and ducks supply enough eggs for the household and friends, and when you crack into the eggs, you'll spot the vivid orange-gold yolks laid only by hens that forage. "The chickens eat a variety of food -- weeds from the garden, bugs, snails, greens and grasses, along with grains," he says. "We only buy organic chicken feed, and it's expensive -- the eggs are actually too expensive to sell."

Twice a year, between growing seasons, the humans turn the chickens out into the garden, where they eat all the greens and pests in sight and fertilize the ground, an efficient composting system. More and more, foes of industrial monoculture advocate methods like this, which allow small-scale farmers to farm more intensively without resorting to herbicides, insecticides, and antibiotics. Rutherford and Montgomery's multipurpose miniature farm offers the kind of urban-bucolic idyll that eco-foodies dream of, and the pair's approach to their eggs and meat is as respectful as it gets.

In the government's view, though, they're breaking every biosecurity rule in the book. Urban growers in a city where backyard chickens are rare, Rutherford and Montgomery have had no contact with UC Extension scientists or national campaigns, and their organic feed sacks contain none of the USDA's warnings. One of the primary rules is to keep species separated, because some birds, such as ducks, can carry avian flu without showing symptoms, while others, like chickens, get sick and die. ("They don't like crops being grown together, either," Rutherford says wryly when told of this.)

More important, agriculture experts say poultry growers need to keep all wild birds out. The pigeons that fly from their neighborhood coops, and the hawks and crows that sometimes circle, looking for meals? All are potential disease carriers. At minimum, scientists such as Cardona recommend that domestic birds' food and water be kept sheltered to avoid attracting wild birds. Rutherford points out that the sparrows flitting in and out of his animal pens can fit easily through the chicken-wire mesh.

The guidelines go far beyond keeping wild birds out. Since the avian flu virus is shed in bird feces and secretions from their eyes, throats, and beaks, it can be transmitted indirectly, too. "Here in the United States," Cardona says, "we say that disease follows the movement of people and equipment." Poultry farmers, she says, should make sure their human visitors haven't had contact with other birds, and they should keep new birds -- or any birds that have left the farm and come back -- in quarantine for several weeks before they join the rest of the flock. Sanitation is also key, she says: Growers need to clean out cages regularly, and disinfect shoes, clothes, people, and equipment before and after entering the pens to make sure nothing that could possibly carry the virus into the poultry area gets past the front gate.

When Rutherford hears of the above recommendations, he says, "It sounds like they're trying to make backyard growers as commercial as possible -- less natural, more controlled." The Berkeley farmers have certainly lost birds to hawks and raccoons, but never to disease. "My feeling is, when we get to the point that we're hearing about cases of avian flu in the United States, I'll get worried," he says.

What worries flu-watchers, though, is that Rutherford's methods are typical. In 2004, the USDA surveyed 540 keepers of "backyard" flocks (less than 1,000 birds) situated within one mile of large commercial poultry farms in eighteen states, including California, and fewer than one in six had heard of "Biosecurity for the Birds." Meanwhile, nearly one in five mingled chickens with waterfowl, and roughly two-thirds left their birds in contact with rodents, wild birds, and other wild animals. Only 3 percent took clothing precautions, and the list goes on.

Many small-scale growers echo Rutherford's concern that the government is trying to make backyard farmers as commercial as possible. After all, people have been living with birds for millennia, while battery cages, chicken wire, and biosecurity plans have only been around for a short time. Why are we instituting such tight restrictions on our flocks now?

Dr. Cardona's response, like that of several other agency officials interviewed, is speculative: "We've never been ahead of a pandemic," she says.

In 1999, the same year the EU passed its Laying Hens Directive, United Egg Producers, a trade organization that claims to represent 90 percent of commercial egg producers in the United States, convened a Welfare Advisory Committee. Made up largely of academics and chaired by Jeffrey Armstrong, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University, the committee reviewed scientific literature to establish animal-welfare standards for UEP members. These became the basis of a voluntary but independently audited certification program for members of United Egg Producers.

At first, participants who'd passed the audit could post a seal reading "Animal Care Certified" on their cartons -- Trader Joe's brand eggs certainly did. But after two years of protest by the Better Business Bureau and Compassion Over Killing, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that the seal was misleading. The new seal reads "United Egg Producers Certified," and the trade group's spokespeople claim that 80 percent of their members qualify.


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