H5N2 is the worst outbreak of bird flu in U.S. history. It has spread to 21 states in just six months. Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa have declared a state of emergency. China and Mexico have imposed bans on U.S. poultry and eggs. Scientists are struggling to determine why the outbreak is so widespread.
As we unravel the mysteries of H5N2, a good place to start is with Confined Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs), where the vast majority of cases have surfaced. This high-density confinement has many problematic effects. Keeping animals in such close confinement increases pathogen risks and magnifies opportunities for transmission to humans. Despite these concerning implications, CAFOs have grown rapidly over the past five decades. In 1966, 57 million pigs were distributed among one million American farms. But by 2001, 57 million pigs were raised on just 80,000 farms, and over half were raised on just 5,000 CAFO facilities.
The outbreak of H5N2 serves as reminder of just how problematic our increasing dependence on CAFOs is. H5N2 came hard on the heels of 2009’s Swine Flu (H1N1) outbreak. But perhaps the sheer breadth of H5N2 could bring us to the brink of a meaningful tipping point—where consumers and businesses lead the charge towards more responsible agricultural practices. The voluntary move away from meat with antibiotics by many top food companies, including Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Cosi, Carl’s Jr, Panera, Pret a Manger, and Shake Shack, is certainly an indicator of the changing tide. Consumers are demanding healthier, more sustainable and more ethical solutions. Businesses are responding. This is exactly the direction we need to be heading in. Until regulation can catch up with reality, we—as foresight-savvy consumers and businesses—can, and should, do better.