Factory-farmed chicken sets U.S. up for bio-terrorism
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2002–
MACHIAPONGO, Virginia–Seeking links to Al Qaida terrorist
funding, about 150 officers of the U.S. Customs Service and other
federal law enforcement agencies on March 20 executed 14 search
warrants at sites in northern Virginia plus the Mar-Jac Poultry
slaughterhouse in Gainesville, Georgia.
The subject of investigation was reportedly Yaqub M. Mirza.
Mirza, reported Associated Press, heads a company called
Sterling Advisory Services, registered at the Mar-Jac address, and
is “listed as the registered agent for Mena Investments Inc. in
Herndon, Virginia.” In addition, said Associated Press, “Mirza
was an officer of the Saar Foundation, started in the 1970s by
members of a wealthy Saudi family to raise money for education and
technology projects in developing Islamic countries. It was
dissolved in December 2000.”
Whether the feds found what they were seeking was still
unclear as ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press.
But terror was at large in the South Atlantic poultry
industry, after Cypress Foods owner James Biggars went bankrupt in
January 2002, leaving 1.4 million hens to starve. Contract growers
who had supplied Biggars told the George Department of Agriculture in
mid-February that they were out of feed. Of the 1.2 million hens in
their care, 850,000 were gassed as unsalvageable. The rest were
sold to other growers.
Georgia Department of Agriculture chief Tommy Irvin told Jim
Tunstall of the Tampa Tribune that cruelty charges against Biggars
were being considered.
As the Georgia disaster played out, Florida agricultural
officials learned that another 200,000 hens owned by Cypress Foods
were housed at Dade City, of whom 30,000 had already died from
starvation–and 85,000 more hens had suffocated in a barn near Live
Oak, Florida, after a lightning strike destroyed their ventilation
There were more dead hens than Florida had capacity to
render, Florida Poultry Federation executive vice president Chuck
Smith told Tampa Tribune reporter Andy Reid.
While Smith tried to figure out what to do with the dead,
Florida activists Rebecca Fry, P.J. McKosky, Gael Murphy, and
Susan Roghair tried to rescue some of the living at the Dade City
location, and Christina Meade and friends recovered others from
“More than 300 hens will live out their lives happily at
United Poultry Concerns in Virginia, the Eastern Shore Chicken
Sanctuary in Maryland, the Poplar Spring Animal Sanctuary in
Maryland, and Oomahnee Farm in Pennsylvania,” said United Poultry
Concerns founder Karen Davis.
The Florida survivors were recovered despite the opposition
of Florida state veterinarian Leroy Coffman, who reportedly asked
sheriff’s deputies to warn the rescue team that they could be
arrested for trespassing. About 40 hens were taken from the rescuers
and gassed. Coffman said that the debilitated birds could carry
deadly diseases, while noting that he saw no actual signs of
But as the post-September 11 anthrax scare that swept the
U.S. brought home to public health officials, the evolution of
antibiotic-resistant bacterial disease is accelerated by the routine
administration of antibiotics to factory-farmed poultry. Mixed into
the birds’ feed, antibiotic supplements serve as both a growth
enhancer and as a way of keeping infection from rapidly spreading
through the crowded cages.
However, the more exposure bacteria have to antibiotics,
the faster the resistant strains become predominant.
For example, explained New York Times food editor Marian
Burros, “After the Food and Drug Administration gave the poultry
industry permission to use fluoroquinolones to treat chickens in
1995, contrary to advice from the Centers for Disease control and
prevention, the increase in bacteria resistance among humans rose
from almost nothing to about 18%.”
As Burros was writing, in early February 2002, the New
England Journal of Medicine published the finding of Cheng-Hsun Chiu,
M.D., of the Dhang Gung Children’s Hospital in Taoyuan, Taiwan,
that within two years of the introduction of fluoroquinolones as a
feed additive for pigs, 60% of one strain of salmonella had become
resistance to Ciprofloxacin, the fluoroquinolone-class antibiotic
that is considered the most suitable drug for treating anthrax.
The British Veterinary Medicines Directory reported just a
few days later that British farm use of antibiotics increased by 12%
in 2000, reversing a two-year decline.
The European Commission on March 25 proposed to ban the use
of existing growth-boosting antibiotics in animal feed by 2006, and
to restrict the use of new antibiotic additives to 10-year “windows,”
after which they would be withdrawn to try to slow down the evolution
of antibiotic resistance.
The EC proposal added to the pressure already coming to bear
upon the FDA to ban the use of fluoroquinolones in animal feed, to
keep Ciprofloxacin available to combat human disease. The Bayer
Corporation, the manufacturer of both Ciprofloxacin and Baytril, a
closely related animal feed additive, in late February began legal
maneuvers to prevent a ban from taking effect.
But sales were already going flat, as in February four of
the top poultry producers in the U.S. announced voluntary halts to
routine use of antibiotic feed additives. Tyson Foods was first,
shortly followed by Perdue Farms, Gold Kist Inc., and Foster Farms.
These four companies alone raise almost half of all the
poultry killed for meat in the U.S. each year. They acted partly
because the fast food restaurant chains McDonald’s, Popeye’s, and
Wendy’s had already refused to buy fluoroquinolone-treated chicken.
Ironically, the late Coalition for Non-Violent Food founder
Henry Spira proposed during the 1990 Persian Gulf War that the U.S.
should bomb Saddam Hussein with Perdue Farms frozen chickens because
they could be deadlier than explosives. Spira published the
suggestion as a full-page ad in The New York Times and The Washington
Post, intending to use satire to give life to what was then
considered a hypothetical argument.
If antibiotic use in poultry does leave the world without an
effective defense against a disease like anthrax, however, which
might be spread by terrorists, and which Saddam Hussein and Osama
bin Laden are believed to have explored using, the once satirical
suggestion will have come to pass–in reverse.