Gamecocks carrying Newcastle disease to domestic flocks killed millions in 1971 and 2003
LOS ANGELES––The billion-dollar-a-year California poultry industry is betting the farm that state and federal authorities can get a two-year series of outbreaks of Newcastle disease under control before it becomes the biggest threat to profits in decades.
An outbreak discovered in California in 1971 eventually spread nationwide, costing the equivalent of the entire California poultry industry payroll for a year to eradicate.
Bigger threat than Proposition 12
Spread by cockfighters and backyard flock keepers, the current Newcastle resurgence, if not controlled before reaching commercial flocks, could cost the poultry industry much more than Proposition 12, the ballot measure going before California voters in November 2018.
Proposition 12, if passed, will purportedly close legal loopholes that have enabled the California egg industry to flout a supposed requirement approved by voters in 2008 that egg-laying hens be raised in a cage-free environment.
Humane Farming Association president Brad Miller, for one, doubts that Proposition 12 will accomplish anything of real value to hen welfare––but even if it passes and takes full effect, Proposition 12 would affect only the egg-laying sector of the industry.
Pandemic would force “depopulation”
A Newcastle disease pandemic would hit the whole industry, including as well as egg-laying hens the more than 250 million chickens raised for meat per year in California, plus about 16 million turkeys.
Proposition 12 is worded to minimize expense to the poultry industry. For example, explains Miller, Proposition 12 “would explicitly legalize egg industry cages throughout California until, at the very least, 2022,” thereby enabling the industry to amortize any expense associated with compliance into the next renovation and rebuilding cycle.
A Newcastle disease pandemic would likely force immediate “depopulation” of any poultry barns having had potential exposure.
“Not a food safety concern”
What is Newcastle disease?
Newcastle disease is easily underestimated, and often has been, because it “is not a food safety concern,” acknowledges the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED].
“No human cases of Newcastle disease have ever occurred from eating poultry products,” ProMED updates often mention, paraphrasing U.S. Department of Agriculture notifcations. “Properly cooked poultry products are safe to eat. In very rare instances, people working directly with sick birds can become infected with mild symptoms.”
But causes enormous suffering
But Newcastle disease causes enormous bird suffering, some from the disease itself, and even more because the only known way to stop an outbreak is to kill all of the birds who may become infected and transmit the infection. This may be done using firefighting foam, live maceration, burying whole barns alive, or burning the barns down with all the birds still inside.
To reduce the risk of transmission, birds believed to have been exposed to Newcastle disease are not trucked off site to be killed elsewhere.
Explains the official U.S. Department of Agriculture web site warning to farmers, “Virulent Newcastle Disease is a contagious and fatal viral disease affecting the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of birds and poultry. The disease is so virulent that many birds and poultry die without showing any clinical signs.”
Poultry workers who attend cockfights
Adds the California Department of Food & Agriculture web alert, “The virus is found in respiratory discharges and feces and may cause high rates of sickness and death in susceptible birds. For poultry, chickens are most susceptible and ducks and geese are the least susceptible. Mortality rates for psittacine birds (parrots) can range from zero up to 75%.”
Newcastle disease is typically transmitted from flock to flock via contaminated shoes and clothing. Poultry barn workers who participate in cockfighting are the most frequent suspected vectors for outbreaks.
Newcastle disease has not been detected in U.S. commercial flocks since the most recent previous California outbreak in 2003, which devastated flocks in Arizona as well.
2018 outbreaks may have had a big head start
But as in 1971 and 2003, the 2018 Newcastle outbreaks may have had a substantial head start before coming to the attention of agricultural health authorities.
According to information forwarded to ProMED on September 27, 2018 by USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service chief trade adviser John Clifford, DVM, “Since May 18. 2018, USDA has confirmed 150 cases of Newcastle disease in California,” including “97 in San Bernardino County, 21 in Riverside County, 31 in Los Angeles County and one in Ventura County.”
In other words, Newcastle disease during the summer of 2018 spread to practically the whole of the populated portion of southern California north of San Diego County, and is now poised to jump into the Central Valley, the major agricultural region in California––if it has not already done so.
On September 19, 2018, Clifford continued, “As part of enhanced surveillance for virulent Newcastle disease virus in exhibition birds, the virus was detected in a live bird market” in Los Angeles County.
“The market has been depopulated and cleaned and disinfected. Live bird markets in the area have been ordered to close for a day and perform cleaning and disinfection with environmental sampling,” Clifford said.
“Exhibition birds” is a euphemism frequently used by cockfighters and gamecock breeders to describe their flocks, often adopted by animal health law enforcement to try to gain and keep the trust of sources within the cockfighting industry whose cooperation is sought for Newcastle disease suppression efforts.
Gamecocks seized in Lancaster
The Los Angeles County live bird market outbreak was reported eleven days after Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control personnel confiscated more than 300 gamecocks and cockfighting equipment after serving a search warrant in Lancaster, a Los Angeles suburb.
All of the birds were killed “because of serious public health concerns and the aggressive nature of birds bred for fighting,” Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control deputy director Danny Ubario told media.
“In situations like this,” Ubario elaborated, “animal control and humane agencies take this preventative action to prevent the very serious risk of the spread of disease such as avian flu or Newcastle disease.”
No one busted, but county passed a cock limit
Surprisingly, no one was arrested.
But, in the name of addressing such situations, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on September 25, 2018 passed an ordinance limiting residents to keeping not more than two roosters on lots of less than half an acre, with not more than 10 roosters on lots of up to five acres, and no more than 25 on a lot of any size. Since residents on properties of any size may keep as many hens as they wish, however, the new ordinance does little to address keeping poultry at densities conducive to disease transmission.
The city of Los Angeles has allowed only one rooster per half-acre lot since 2009.
Observed ProMED infectious diseases moderator Martin Hugh-Jones back on June 4, 2018, soon after the first reports of Newcastle outbreaks in the Los Angeles area surfaced, “This appears to be a repeat of 2003, in that these flocks are of fighting cocks, probably all with a common source event. It would not be a surprise if this virus has a Mexican origin.”
Mexico, a longtime known Newcastle disease reservoir, declared itself free of Newcastle in 2015, after a five-year eradication drive, two years after the most recent Mexican outbreak was detected. But cockfighting remains legal in Mexico, with little or no health surveillance of the gamecock traffic from ring to ring, while backyard hen flocks are kept at many times the estimated U.S. density of one flock per hundred homes.
9,000 gamecocks seized in 20 months
Nearly 9,000 gamecocks have been seized during the past 20 months in cockfighting raids in the four southern California counties where Newcastle disease has been detected since May 2018, including 7,000 gamecocks who were impounded and killed on May 16, 2017 in what was believed to be the biggest U.S. cockfighting bust ever.
“Several living birds had respiratory diseases,” mentioned Los Angeles Times staff writer Matt Hamilton.
Humane Society of the U.S. cockfighting expert Eric Sakach recalled that about 2,700 gamecocks had been impounded from the same property in 2007.
Cockfighters compensated by feds
Frustration has long smoldered among both humane law enforcement personnel and animal disease control workers over the failure of other agencies, the judiciary at multiple levels, and legislators to address cockfighting as both a serious crime and a disease threat.
Indeed, some of the cockfighters who spread Newcastle disease throughout Southern California and into Arizona between November 2002 and May 2003, by illegally transporting gamecocks between fighting pits, apparently reaped a financial windfall through a federal compensation program, according to documents obtained by Associated Press under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The USDA paid compensation of $22.3 million to poultry owners whose infected or exposed flocks were killed as part of the Newcastle eradication effort. Most of the 3.7 million birds who were destroyed were egg-laying hens, for whom the USDA paid $2.89 apiece, according to Associated Press: $10.7 million.
Suspected cockfighters pocketed $11.4 million
The other 144,000 birds ordered killed were characterized mainly as gamefowl, including thousands of roosters and brood cocks whom authorities believed were used for fighting, Associated Press reported.
For these birds the USDA paid an average of $79.31 each, with some roosters and brood cocks valued as high as $500, according to the records. Suspected cockfighters collected $11.4 million.
Cockfighting was at the time still legal in two U.S. states, New Mexico and Arizona. New Mexico banned cockfighting in 2007, Louisiana in 2008.
12 million birds killed to stop 1971-1973 outbreak
More than 12 million chickens and other poultry were killed to control the 1971-1973 worst-ever U.S. outbreak of Newcastle disease, discovered in California but eventually afflicting most states with significant poultry industries.
That outbreak, costing poultry producers and taxpayers $56 million, worth about $220 million in 2018 dollars, arrived with wild-caught parrots.
The international traffic in wild-caught birds was at that time virtually without legal restraint. The Newcastle outbreak was instrumental in convincing animal use industries to accept the longtime recommendation of animal welfare groups that the wild-caught bird traffic should be controlled or eliminated.
Animal advocates had warned that poorly monitored bird imports could trigger such an epidemic since 1950, when the first known U.S. Newcastle outbreak came from Asia with exotic pheasants who were bred for shooting preserves.
Monterey County questions
With that background in mind, one might imagine that law enforcement, including humane law enforcement and the California Department of Food & Agriculture, would respond quickly to reports of suspected gamecock breeding and transport.
Such was apparently not the case in August 2018, recounted Monterey County Weekly staff writer Pam Marino, a University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism fellow.
Wrote Marino, “The Illinois-based group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK, posted a video of a facility it claims was recorded by one of its ‘angel drones’ to YouTube on August 27. Numerous roosters in ramshackle pens, covered by a patchwork of corrugated metal pieces, can be seen in the video,” taken at a location about two hours’ drive north of the nearest recent Newcastle outbreak, in Ventura County.
SHARK claims authorities did nothing
“The video accuses the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department and the Monterey County SPCA—the nonprofit organization responsible for investigating animal cruelty in the county—of doing nothing about the facility,” Marino summarized.
SHARK discovered the rooster pens while doing unrelated aerial video work for the Humane Farming Association. Monterey SPCA spokesperson Beth Brookhouser told Marino that the site was subject of an “active and open” investigation, and that SPCA investigators had visited the site “multiple times,” working with other county agencies.
Property owner Jaime Martinez acknowledged renting the property to “several people raising roosters for show,” Marino reported, but denied “there is anything related to cockfighting taking place.”
“Martinez and his wife Francisca are named on an administrative citation issued on August 17 by the Monterey County Resource Management Agency,” Marino added, “listing three violations: more than five roosters on site without permits; substandard fencing, animal enclosures and shed; and accumulation of rubbish and debris.”
SHARK founder Steve Hindi was not impressed.
“The Monterey SPCA is doing little if anything,” Hindi told ANIMALS 24-7 a month after Marino’s report. “The Monterey County Sheriff’s Department states flat out that they’re not doing anything.”
But Hindi indicated that a local source has identified several similar sites, which SHARK hopes to be investigating soon.