French Farmers Criticized for Asphyxiating Poultry to Curb Bird Flu

The authorization of poultry asphyxiation to slow the spread of a wave of bird flu that has spread throughout France has received criticism from farm unions and wildlife activists who say the process is cruel and inhumane.

French officials said Tuesday that millions of birds have been "culled," a term for farmers selectively killing animals when necessary, in the months since an outbreak of bird flu first began to appear on French farms in November, according to Reuters. The controversial process of asphyxiation, cutting off ventilation into an area where the selected birds are being held, is said to be a last resort, French Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie said Tuesday.

The outbreak of bird flu has spread to dozens of states across the U.S., most recently when thousands of birds were euthanized in South Dakota due to infections detected in the past several weeks. Earlier in the month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that avian flu was discovered in both commercial poultry flocks and backyard flocks in 12 states.

Reuters reported that nearly 1,000 outbreaks of the "highly pathogenic avian influenza" have been discovered across French farms since November 26.

Many French farms use euthanasia in various forms that stop the animals from suffering, but Denormandie said Tuesday that in certain areas where outbreaks are particularly large, veterinary services may have trouble keeping up with euthanasia demands, which is why the government has said asphyxiation is an acceptable last resort.

In January, Reuters reported that 15 countries had reported outbreaks of the new bird flu that has taken the form of several different variants. Italy, which the World Organization for Animal Health said has seen nearly 300 outbreaks, has reportedly had to kill millions of birds. The organization said at the time that it was monitoring to see whether a strain would develop that could spread to humans, which has been a rare step for prior bird flu strains.

Experts have told Newsweek that infection of bird flu among humans is less common than it is among birds, as the disease typically spreads from birds that migrate across countries, spreading the disease to local farms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also said that it does not believe the current outbreaks among birds pose a significant risk to humans.

While they may not pose a health risk, bird flu outbreaks can cause economic problems if they are large enough. In a 2015 outbreak, an estimated 50 million birds were infected across 15 states, leading to a reduction in the supply of eggs and other poultry products, which increased prices, Newsweek previously reported.

Update 3/22/22, 4:40 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with additional information.

France Bird Flu Poultry Farm Culling
French officials have authorized the killing of millions of poultry over the last several months as a strain of bird flu has spread across farms throughout the country. Above, a chicken peers out from a cage at the Sanoh chicken farm on January 27, 2007, in Suphanburi, Thailand. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images