Today the Humane Society of the United States filed a federal lawsuit challenging the response plan for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (or “bird flu”) of the United States Department of Agriculture. The response plan, produced by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, is shortsighted and dangerous.

For years, the HSUS has been warning USDA and the factory farm industry of the imminent threat of a pandemic resulting from zoonotic pathogens -- diseases transmitted from animals to humans—that are closely associated with the intensive confinement of animals.

Influenza spreads within factory farms directly from animal to animal or by way of workers, flies, manure, and rodents. When thousands of animals are tightly confined it creates a recipe for disaster, in which potential pathogens can recombine and generate viral forms with the ability to infect people.

While the COVID-19 pandemic likely resulted from a wildlife market and the wildlife trade, prior deadly and costly outbreaks of pathogenic illness in the global food chain have been linked to farm animals. For instance, a 2003 bird flu outbreak came from infected chickens and the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak that sickened nearly 60 million people was linked to U.S. pig farms.

Five years ago, seeing the threat of potential disease outbreaks based on farm animal to human transmission, we asked APHIS to consider how its Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza control plan could help prevent the development and spread of bird flu. The HSUS suggested a plan that would incentivize producers to give animals room to move naturally, instead of the industrialized norm which often involves cramming birds into cages. Giving animals more space would reduce the risk of mutation and spread of disease. But APHIS went in another direction, with a plan that essentially subsidizes the extreme confinement of animals that causes the threat in the first place.

During a typical outbreak of zoonotic disease, APHIS’s response is often to slowly suffocate and cook millions of conscious birds to death through a method called ventilation shutdown. This involves shutting down a facility’s entire ventilation system causing carbon dioxide and heat to build up. The animals’ bodies are piled up and burned or dumped together. This entire process releases fluids and gases, like dioxin—a toxin linked to cancer, liver and immune system damage, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

Under the APHIS plan, the companies that stuffed these animals in cages or warehouses are to be reimbursed with taxpayer dollars and allowed to continue cruelly confining birds so that this wasteful, cruel and self-defeating cycle can begin again. Between 2014 and 2016 more than 50 million birds (egg laying hens, chickens raised for meat, turkeys and others) were killed across more than a dozen states in an effort to contain a bird flu outbreak. This did as much as three billion dollars’ worth of damage to the U.S. economy, and APHIS spent over $900 million cleaning up the mess it describes as the most serious animal health disease incident in history.

An outbreak response plan that indemnifies factory farms in this way isn’t just cruel; it represents a threat to human health. As our lawsuit makes clear, the USDA’s approach foolishly props up practices that threaten not just Americans but countless others around the globe with more frequent and more life-threatening pandemics.

We advise a better direction. Our federal government should require producers to agree to end their intensive confinement of chickens in cages and shift to cage-free systems that give the birds dramatically more space and ability to engage in healthy, natural behaviors. Preventing outbreaks is far cheaper than trying to contain them, and investments in prevention pay off a whole lot more than the perpetuation of a failed and dangerous paradigm like intensive confinement. Bringing an end to government response plans that reimburse the perpetrators of such reckless practices would be a good start.

The lawsuit was prepared and filed by pro bono counsel at the law firm Shearman & Sterling, LLP and the HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation team.