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http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/article356440.ece

Factory farms in Asia blamed for pandemic

By Jonathan Brown

Published: 08 April 2006

The insatiable demand for cheap food, the global poultry industry and the giant factory farms of south-east Asia have been blamed for spreading avian flu around the world.

A new analysis of the pandemic has sought to shift the emphasis for international action to tackle the disease away from backyard farmers and wild migratory birds. Instead, efforts to stamp out bird flu should focus on intensive rearing units, particularly those in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, according to Grain, an international campaigning group promoting agricultural biodiversity in the developing world.

In a new report, entitled Fowl play: the poultry industry's central role in the bird flu crisis, the group claims that the "epicentre" of the pandemic can be traced back to Asian units housing millions of birds. Such intensive conditions have provided ideal breeding grounds for the new strains of highly pathogenic bird flu, it is claimed.

The disease is spread not only by migrating birds, but along the highways and railway lines of the transnational poultry trade, the report says.

"Everyone is focused on migratory birds and backyard chickens as the problem," said Devlin Kuyek, of Grain. "But they are not effective vectors of highly pathogenic bird flu. The virus kills them but is unlikely to be spread by them. The evidence we see over and over again, from the Netherlands in 2003 to Japan in 2004 to Egypt in 2006, is that lethal bird flu breaks out in large scale industrial chicken farms and then spreads," he added.

The scale of the growth of the poultry industry in Asia, which supplies a significant proportion of the 200 million chickens Britain imports each year, has been phenomenal. In Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam, production has soared eightfold in 30 years, producing 2.4m tons of meat in 2001.

Among the biggest players is Charoen Pokphand (CP), the region's biggest producer of poultry and feed, and the Asian business partner of the British supermarket giant Tesco. According to the report, at least one case of bird flu was allegedly traced to chicks supplied by CP in Cambodia, although the company denied it was the cause.

China, too, has seen poultry production rise, trebling to nine million tons a year, with most growth accounted for by new intensive farms. The importation of Asian poultry meat has angered British farmers, who say far eastern birds do not enjoy the same welfare standards as UK poultry. Imports of poultry meat from Thailand were banned in 2004.

Crucial to the case that bid flu is linked to factory farming is the outbreak in Nigeria this year, which illegally imported unregulated hatchable eggs. Meanwhile, it is claimed the disease was first discovered and spread from a factory farm in India.

An editorial in this month's Lancet says: "There is now growing concern that the whirlwind spread of avian flu in some parts of the world is not entirely governed by nature, but by the human activities of commerce and trade."

It concedes that while migratory birds were most likely the cause of bringing the virus in to Europe, it does not explain the general spread of the disease. It suggests that "far more likely to be perpetuating the spread of the virus is the movement of poultry, poultry products, or infected material from poultry farms." But it concluded: "This mode of transmission has been down-played by international agencies, who admit that migratory birds are an easy target since