Everywhere we turn, there are articles, memes, posts, or comments about the rising costs of eggs. The higher prices of eggs may be surprising for some but to anyone who understands the risks of low-cost animal-based products; it is neither shocking nor unwelcome. With egg prices increasing around fifty percent since 2022, sticker shock is taking its toll. Still, the truth is that even at $20.00 per dozen, eggs are far too cheap to justify the public health risks posed by large-scale farming practices or the pain and suffering involved for the animals.
Not all costs are monetary, and the lower costs of eggs come at a steep price for us all. If anyone doubts the dangers we could be facing, there are hundreds of wild sea lions, tens of thousands of farmed minks, and almost 60 million birds from factory farms that have died because of the latest outbreak of the H5N1 Avian Flu. Many of us are suffering from pandemic fatigue, causing the latest news about the newest virus mutations to get lost in the shuffle.
“The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic. In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security, and seriously impact the global economy and trade.” – World Health Organization 2019 Annual Report.
The History of the H5N1 Avian Flu
In 1996, a goose farm in China became the first place to detect the H5N1 virus. By 1997, a widespread outbreak had disseminated through the capital city of Hong Kong. This outbreak affected geese and other birds and stirred up fears of a pandemic when it led to the first documented human deaths. By 2005, H5N1 had spread to wild migratory birds, inadvertently continuing to spread the virus around the globe.
Fighting Outbreaks of Avian Flu
In 2020 as the world struggled against the Covid 19 pandemic, a new variant of H5N1 named 18.104.22.168b emerged and began infecting a wider variety of bird species, even faster than previous mutations. H5N1 22.214.171.124b caused the deaths of millions of birds in North America and Europe before hitting Central and South America towards the end of 2022.
“Of 16 strains of novel influenza viruses currently identified by the CDC as “of special concern,” including H5N1, 11 come from viruses of the H5 or H7 type. In 2018, a group of scientists analysed the 39 antigenic shifts, also called “conversion events,” that we know played a key role in the emergence of these particularly dangerous strains. Their results prove that “all but two of these events were reported in commercial poultry production systems.” – Epidemiology of Avian Influenza Viruses.
Factory Farms: Pandemic Breeding Grounds
Animals raised in factory farms live in unnatural situations that become breeding grounds for virus and bacterial mutations. Most egg-laying chickens have less room than an iPad to live in. They never see the sun or feel the grass beneath their feet. Their entire, short lives are crowded with other birds and their waste. Large-scale farmers abuse and overuse antibiotics to keep animals in these horrific conditions alive long enough to slaughter them. The same goes for other animals on farms, like minks.
In late 2022 the avian flu mutated again, and this time it was not just mass quantities of birds suffering; farmed minks are also becoming victims of the latest deadly viral strain. A Spanish mink farm holding over 52,000 animals captive began reporting cases of H5N1 spreading throughout minks in October of 2022.
“Farm workers noted a sharp increase in deaths, and nasopharyngeal swabbing of the mink revealed H5N1 avian influenza. The mortality rate increased each week, spreading from hot spots to the rest of the barns, peaking toward the end of October…They said the mutation in the PB2 gene may have public health implications, given that it is present in the avian-like PB2 gene of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic flu virus and has characteristics that enable recognition by human airway receptor cells.” – CIDRAP.
During the Covid 19 pandemic, millions of farmed minks became ill with the Covid 19 virus, passing it between each other and transmitting it to and from humans. Since then, millions of minks have been killed on mass farms to stop the spread of Covid 19.
“The farms pose just as big of a threat when it comes to H5N1, Kuiken says. Most of the mammalian species infected with the virus so far are wild predators and scavengers feeding on infected birds—“solitary animals, or animals that live in small families,” he says. They are unlikely to spread the virus far or infect humans. At mink farms, thousands of such solitary carnivores are forced to live together, creating ideal conditions for the avian virus to adapt to mammals. “It’s a human construct,” Kuiken says.” – Science.com
As 2023 began, the latest and largest H5N1 outbreak since 1996 continued to spread throughout egg farms and animal populations around the globe. According to Science.com, this latest outbreak of H5N1 is the first time the virus has evolved to thrive between mammal-to-mammal transmission.
“This is incredibly concerning,” says Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London. “This is a clear mechanism for an H5 pandemic to start.” Isabella Monne, a veterinary researcher at the European Union’s Reference Laboratory for Avian Influenza in Italy, where the samples from Spain were sequenced, calls the finding “a warning bell.” – Science.com
If the Covid 19 pandemic that took over life as we knew it for years wasn’t enough of a “warning bell,” it is hard to imagine what it will take for humanity to come together and create real change. One thing is certain: the rising price of eggs is insubstantial for everyone when exploring the actual costs of maintaining the status quo.