Thursday, July 07, 2005

Killing your chickens far from home

If you follow bird flu news there is a certain sameness about the reports: 7000 ducks culled in Vietnam's central Quang Tri province, following the culling of 10,000 infected waterfowl last month (ProMed). And so on.

Ever wonder how this "culling" is done? Millions of birds have been culled in southeast asia and China over the last year, not an easy task. As always, it turns out there are amateurs and professionals in this field. The amateurs, like beleaguered farmers ordered to destroy their livelihood, desperately try to stuff the birds in sacks and beat them, or bury or burn them alive. But leave it to The Wall Street Journal to report on how the professionals do it. In a grimly fascinating bio, they tell the story of a Dutch farmer, Harm Kiezebrink, who has become one of the world's pre-eminent bird slaughterers.

Young Harm grew up on a poultry farm and one of his early chores was to kill male chicks that were not useful because they didn't lay eggs and were too scrawny for meat. He hated doing it and left poultry farming as a young adult. But in his late thirties he was asked to come back to the family business, whose product, strangely enough, was dead chicks.
The company, Kiezebrink International, based in Putten, kills male chicks just a few hours old, freezes them, and ships them to zoos around Europe to feed to birds of prey such as owls and falcons. A kilogram of frozen chicks costs about $1.20, and the company shipped about 35 million chicks last year.
In 1997 the story takes a strange twist. Harm's 67 year old father traveled to Indonesia on a consulting job, training workers how to tellthe sex of hours-old chicks. Shortly after his return to the Netherlands he developed a sudden flu-like illness and died within two weeks. Investigation of the cause of death by Dutch health officials was inconclusive, but Harm is convinced it was related to his contact with poultry. Soon afterward he started a bird culling consultancy in his father's name, a for-profit company with 120 chicken-killing machines and a dozen employees.

His premier product is the AED-100 which can kill 10,000 birds an hour. It grabs them by the feet and drags their heads through an electrified pool of water. With other contractors, he helped the Dutch kill 40 million birds in two months in the Netherlands and Belgium in an H7N7 outbreak. But the machine is expensive. Its mobile field unit version, the AED-25, sells for $60,000 and was too expensive for the Chinese. Kiezebrink is trying to develop a cheaper unit.

This is a strange world we find ourselves in. I expect that at some point in the mid to distant future (if we survive the policies of the Bush Administration), people will look back on all this and shake their heads at its bizarreness. It is interesting how sane it can look when you are living through it.