Multinational Monitor

MAR/APR 2006
VOL 27 No. 2


Plague and Profit: Business, Bureaucracy and Cover-up in the Spread of Avian Flu in Asia
by Mike Davis

Fowl Play: The Role of Agribusiness in the Avian Flu Crisis
by Devlin Kuyek

Migratory Birds as Scapegoats: The Role of Wild Birds in Spreading Avian Flu
by Dr. Leon Bennun

Questions and Answers on Bird Flu from the CDC


Preventing Pandemic: The Global Strategy to Stop a Bird Flu Pandemic Before It Starts (Or Control It, If It Does)
An Interview with David Nabarro

At Risk: The dangers of an Eroded Public Health System
An Interview with Irwin Redlener

The Sky May Not Be Falling: An Eminent Scientist's Cautious View on Bird Flu Anxiety
An Interview with Edwin Kilbourne

Stopping Spread Among Poultry
An Interview with Alex Theirmann

The Tamiflu Manufacturing Controversy
An Interview with Yusuf Hamied


Behind the Lines

The Political Economy of Bird Flu

The Front
Great Bear Rainforest Story -- Dirty Halliburton

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Plague and Profit: Business, Bureaucracy and Cover-Up in the Spread of Avian Flu in Asia

by Mike Davis

All of today's tens of billions of highly engineered factory chickens are descended from red jungle fowl that still roam wild in forest regions of Thailand and Vietnam. Using mitochondrial DNA analysis, Japanese researchers in 1994 demonstrated that chickens were domesticated in the area of present-day Thailand more than 8,000 years ago. The chicken, along with the pig and the buffalo, subsequently became the basis of agrarian culture throughout Southeast Asia. Chickens are likewise the bottom line of Asia's largest and most powerful agricultural-export conglomerate, Bangkok-based Charoen Pokphand. CP, as it is universally known, figures centrally in the story of H5N1's terrifying return in the winter of 2003-4 and the unprecedented highly pathogenic avian influenza epidemic that threatens to become a global human and ecological cataclysm.

The Rise of CP - Thailand's Tyson

Founded by the immigrant Chia brothers from Guangdong, CP was a rice-seed distributor in Bangkok's Chinatown until Chia Ek Chow, the youngest of four sons, took over the business in 1964. In the face of growing intolerance toward the Chinese diaspora throughout Southeast Asia, he changed his name to Dhanin Chearavanont and reoriented the company to chicken breeding and broiler farming. Impressed by the success of U.S. companies in transforming poultry raising into a streamlined industrial process more closely resembling chemical manufacture than traditional agriculture, Chearavanont formed two successive strategic partnerships with U.S. companies and quickly became Asia's leading apostle of Tyson-style intensive farming and vertical integration. In 1973 Chearavanont opened Thailand's first modern poultry slaughterhouse and began exporting to Japan. CP's major competitors, the Bangkok Livestock Trading Company and Saha Farms, were forced to keep pace with Chearavanont's innovations, which included organizing networks of contract farms and building modern export processing plants.

By the mid-1990s, Thailand (which had adopted CP's corporate slogan, "Kitchen of the World,") had the most corporatized livestock industry in Asia. CP and a handful of other vertically-integrated exporters controlled 80 percent of production, with chicken farming concentrated in a dense, polluted belt 60 to 150 kilometers outside Bangkok. With 100,000 employees across Asia, CP boasts that its agro-industrial empire is "fully integrated horizontally and vertically. Operations take in animal feed production, breeders, farming systems, meat processing, food production and its very successful value-added products." CP also has promoted the spectacular rise of Western-style fast foods in Asia through the sourcing, or in the case of China, the direct ownership of myriad Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises.

For Chearavanont and other "integrators," economies of scale in a booming export environment have produced fabulous profits, but for CP's 10,000 contract farmers, as well as for hundreds of thousands of backyard poultry producers, the situation is radically different. As journalist Isabelle Delforge points out: "With contract farming, large companies control the whole production process: they lend money to the farmers, they sell them chicks, feed and medicine, and they have the right to buy the whole production. But usually the company is not committed to buy the chickens if the demand is low. Contract farmers bear all the risks related to production and become extremely dependent on demand from the world market. They become factory workers in their own field." Companies like CP, an organic farmer told Delforge, "destroy small farmers with false promises." For the majority of Thai farmers, the Livestock Revolution has meant soaring indebtedness, loss of independence and the continued migration of their daughters to Bangkok's sweatshops and brothels.

While Thailand's chickens (and later, pigs and prawns) have made Chearavanont a billionaire and, according to business magazines, one of the 20 most powerful businessmen in Asia, his central ambition has always been to honor his father's dream of bringing the Livestock Revolution - in the form of large-scale agro-industrial capitalism - back to China. Thanks to astute politicking and powerful Guangdong connections, CP was literally the first multinational investor to step foot inside Deng Xiaoping's "Open Door" in 1979 (CP's foreign business license in Shenzhen was number 001). CP, by itself or in alliances with other capital groups, has subsequently invested billions in the PRC. In addition to holding a diversified portfolio of hotels, shopping malls, fast-food franchises (including Kentucky Fried Chicken), telecommunications and restaurants, it has built more than 100 feed mills and poultry-processing plants throughout China in an attempt to forestall both foreign competitors (Tyson Foods, above all) and local upstarts in the world's most dynamic market for chicken products. (During the 1990s, as global poultry output surpassed that of beef, China doubled its share of total world consumption - from less than 8 percent to more than 17 percent - and displaced the United States as the largest consumer.)

The Thai Cover-Up

The return of avian influenza was shrouded in rumor, denial and conspiracy during the fall of 2003, with Indonesia and China both aggressively suppressing information about the disease's outbreak.

But Chinese authorities were not the only ones concealing the epidemic. In early November 2003, chickens started dying on farms across Thailand. As one farmer described it: "Their bodies began shaking; it was if they were suffocating, and thick saliva started coming out their mouths. We tried to give the hens herbs to make them better, but it made no difference. The faces then went dark green and black, and then they died." Although a veterinary scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University warned that he found H5N1 in several dead chickens, he was ignored by Thailand's Livestock Department. ("All the academics and experts," an opposition senator would later allege, "had to shut up due to political interference.") Likewise, when a worried farmer showed the carcasses of his dead flock to an official, he was told that the birds had died "without any medical cause."

Strangely, in the midst of all these bird deaths, the corporate chicken-processing plants were working overtime. As angry trade unionists at one factory just outside the capital told the Bangkok Post after the scandal broke: "Before November we were processing about 90,000 chickens a day. But from November to 23 January, we had to kill about 130,000 daily. It's our job to cut the birds up. It was obvious they were ill: their organs were swollen. We didn't know what the disease was, but we understood that the management was rushing to process the chickens before getting any veterinary inspection. We stopped eating [chicken] in October."

The wall of official silence across Asia was breached in December when chickens started dying en masse on a farm near Seoul. Korean agricultural officials were stunned to discover H5N1, but, in contrast to their counterparts in China and Thailand, they promptly notified the World Animal Health Organization (OIE); a week later, South Korea announced a massive cull after new infections were identified in chicken and duck flocks in five provinces. Meanwhile children, not just chickens, had been dying mysteriously in Vietnam; just before the New Year, one of the CDC's influenza experts in Atlanta received a worried email from a virologist in Hanoi which described patients suffering from symptoms of viral pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which had caused the death of many of the 1918 pandemic's victims.

The WHO and its veterinary counterpart, the OIE, as well as the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), were horrified to realize that bureaucrats and agribusiness spokespeople had for months been covering up an avian flu epidemic of continental scope. (In impeccable, understated bureaucratese, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf observed that "the lack of timely reporting of infection to the national competent authorities, OIE and other international bodies has contributed to the scale of the problem.")

In Thailand, meanwhile, lies were being manufactured almost as fast as sick chickens were being slaughtered and shipped to overseas markets. Deputy Minister of Agriculture Newin Chidchob talked nonchalantly about a few cases of "avian cholera," while Prime Minister Thaksin and his ministers, to assuage a nervous public, consumed Thai-style chicken dishes on national television. CP senior executive Sarasin Viraphol assured reporters that, although the company would not allow the press to inspect its plants, avian flu was completely absent in Thailand. In fact, as the Bangkok press later reported, the government had been colluding with CP and the other giant poultry producers to conceal the epidemic by paying contract farmers with infected flocks to keep quiet; official deceit gave the big exporters several months to process and sell diseased inventory as well as to disinfect their plants and institute isolation procedures in their battery warehouses. Small producers, however, were left alone to bear the brunt of the epidemic's human and economic costs.

Finally, in late January, with two young farm boys critically ill from influenza, the Thai parliamentary opposition, led by maverick senator Nirum Phitakwatchara, was able to force Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to admit that H5N1 was, in fact, ravaging the poultry belt. His staff immediately off-loaded responsibility for official mendacity onto lowly provincial officials. "What looks like a cover-up," Thaksin's spokesman deadpanned, "was a misinterpretation of procedures. The most appropriate word is 'screw-up.' Some agencies screwed up. We found there was lots of confusion about the kinds of information that needed to be reported upstairs."

Small producers, in response, screamed that "by denying the facts, the government was helping out the major operators, but in the end it's us small farmers who are suffering," reported Agence France Presse. A Bangkok newspaper contrasted the fate of big and small poultry producers in Sukhothai province. The commercial growers "integrated" by CP and other conglomerates were notified about the epidemic in December and were provided with antiviral vaccines by livestock officials, and thus their inventories were saved. But small holders were kept in the dark about the disease, and as a result most of their chickens perished as did one peasant's teenage son. "If we had at least known about the disease," Laweng Boonrod told the press, "I would not have allowed my son to go close to my sick chickens and he would not have died."

The main importers of Thai poultry were also furious at the elaborate deception, none more so than EU Health Commissioner, David Byrne, who had just returned to Brussels with Prime Minister Thaksin's personal assurance that Thailand was free of avian flu. Byrne told the press that he "felt dishonored." The EU, Japan and South Korea promptly embargoed poultry imports from Thailand, while the Bush administration, grateful for Thaksin's support of U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, avoided public criticism of the cover-up.

CP Sees Opportunity

CP's stock immediately fell by an eighth, and the ground shook. ("In Thailand," writes Isabelle Delforge, "when CP sneezes, the whole business community catches cold - or flu.") Dhanin Chearavanont, however, was surprisingly upbeat and urged Thais to "turn the crisis into opportunity." Another CP executive promised that "changes resulting from the crisis would benefit the Thai chicken industry in the long term as well as help it recover from the current difficulties." The plague, in other words, might rationalize poultry production. But opportunities and benefits for whom? The government quickly unveiled a sweeping plan to complete the modernization of the Thai poultry industry by culling small-scale, open-air flocks and requiring their operators to build new industrial poultry houses; only those farmers who fully complied with the plan would be eligible for compensation for their dead chickens.

Thailand's agrarian populists, including senator and agricultural economist Chirmsak Pinthong, promptly denounced the government's plan as another cunning move by Chearavanont to force the small operators into extinction or turn them into serfs of CP. "The government is regulating small chicken raisers in such a way that it benefits the big conglomerates." Small holders complained that government compensation for their dead chickens was only a fraction of what CP and others were charging them to restock their flocks. There was also evidence that the poultry cull was being used to strengthen the corporations. "When the avian flu was detected," writes Delforge and Chanida Chanyapate, a Thai colleague, "a red zone was cleared around the farm and all the poultry in the zone were killed to prevent the spread of the disease. However, some farmers reported dead chickens but no red zone was declared around their property. They suspected the authorities of protecting neighboring industrial farms or owners of highly valuable fighting cocks."

He Changchui, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, indirectly criticized the giant producers by stressing the role of "high densities of humans and animals ... [in] creating new pathways for disease transmission through inappropriate waste disposal, direct contact or through airborne transmission." He urged a "substantial restructuring" of poultry production along lines that favored the poor, protected the environment and compensated the small producers affected by the outbreak. The Thaksin government, however, uncritically embraced Chearavanont's contention that avian flu's spread was due to the small producers and their "backward" open-air chicken flocks. CP claimed that its industrialized, enclosed farming system was virtually impregnable to viral outbreaks and epidemics.

While it is true that Southeast Asia's traditional backyard chicken flocks offer myriad opportunities for infectious interchange between different species of poultry and wild birds, the huge chicken factories (50,000 birds per two-story structure) maximize the accumulation of viral load and subsequent antigenic drift. Indeed, some disease ecologists argue that a high density of smallholders surrounding industrial operations pose particular risks. In an epidemiological sense, the outdoor flocks are the fuse, and the dense factory populations, the explosive charge.

Mike Davis is the author of serveral books, including City of Qaurtaz, Ecology of Fear, and Planet of Slums. This article is adapted from chapter eight of The Monster At Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, which contains full citations. Published with permission of The New Press. To purchase the book, visit (c) Mike Davis

Recalcitrance In Indonesia and China

Once the Thais had publicly acknowledged their outbreak, the other major deceivers - Indonesia and China - were forced to play show-and-tell as well. The scandal of Indonesia's February 2004 confession that the government had been concealing knowledge of an H5N1 outbreak since late August was compounded by Agriculture Minister Bungaran Saragih's extraordinary explanation that they had withheld information because "we did not want to cause unnecessary losses through a hasty decision."

Chinese officials managed to be even more arrogant and egregious in their attempt to save face than their Indonesian counterparts. In the first week of February, they grudgingly doled out in bits and pieces the admission that H5N1 was raging in no fewer than 12 provinces and cities, including Guanxi, Guangdong, and even metropolitan Shanghai. Ten days later Chen Kaizhi, a top official in Guangzhou, demonstrated the stunning scientific ignorance of senior bureaucrats like himself in a speech to the Guangdong People's Congress: "This disease is hundreds of years old and it can be prevented and treated. Vaccines are effective. No humans have been infected, so why this uproar?" Chen went on to contrast the hysteria of Hong Kong health officials, the WHO and other "outsiders" with traditional folk wisdom. "In the past when life was hard, we hoped for a disease among our chickens so that we got to eat chicken. When a chicken at home dropped its head, we said, 'good, now we get to eat chicken.' Now we are so advanced that people are not allowed to eat diseased chicken."

The Hong Kong media that had earlier reported suspected cases in China or now dared to criticize the ignorance of officials like Chen were threatened with legal action under the same infamous mainland statute that had been used to suppress reportage of SARS a year earlier.

Meanwhile, OIE and WHO were desperately worried about the haphazard, and, in some cases, perfunctory character of the poultry culls that were Asia's only hope of containing the H5N1 catastrophe.

The government of Vietnam, previously praised by the WHO for its competent handling of the SARS outbreak, was altogether more cooperative, but the country's poverty and the dispersed character of its largely backyard poultry industry posed huge obstacles to creating effective viral firebreaks. Poor farmers suppressed news of infections and concealed valuable birds such as fighting cocks; in addition, inthe face of rising anger in the countryside, the government was reluctant to extend the radius of culls around sick flocks beyond one half kilometer - the WHO recommended three kilometers - or to exterminate the domestic ducks that were the infection's probable reservoir. Similarly, the disinfection of farms and the disposal of contaminated poultry manure were Sisyphean tasks that always risked further transmission of the virus, typically via the boots or clothing of cleanup workers.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, meanwhile, balked at the task of killing millions of chickens, and so her government initially proposed a vaccination campaign instead. After angry protests from the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc, Indonesia finally agreed to slaughter birds, but with a half-heartedness that reassured few critics.

February was, indeed, a terrifying month, with new human victims in Vietnam and Thailand and further avian outbreaks in China and Indonesia. Most disturbingly, the new strain, known as GenZ, was more lethal than any influenza in scientific experience. With each passing day, scientists feared they would meet its reassortant offspring, ready to conquer the world.

Then in mid-March, the plague suddenly seemed to relent. The last deaths were a twelve-year-old in Vietnam, who passed away on March 15 after a long struggle, and a poultry worker in Thailand who died the following day. On March 16, China announced that it had eradicated the virus in all 49 hot zones; this triumphalist statement alarmed the FAO and the OIE, who cautioned against premature declarations of victory - the international protocol was to carefully monitor flocks for six months before ruling that a region or nation was free of avian influenza. The international agencies warned that the crisis was not over, and they warned countries not to restock poultry until they had adequate surveillance and biosecurity in place. Nonetheless, Vietnam followed China's example on March 30 and declared the outbreak over.

Thailand also intimated that it was making splendid progress and would soon join the ranks of the victors. As CP shares began to climb out of the gutter and the Thaksin regime lobbied Europe and Japan to re-admit Thai chicken products, the attention of the international influenza community shifted to the alarming outbreak of a different flu virus in British Columbia.

Somehow, despite the cover-ups, official lies and months of lost ground, and despite the bungled culls and the gaping holes in the influenza surveillance network, the great chicken slaughter seemed to have turned the tide. The WHO's warnings about an imminent pandemic seemed less urgent, and the more optimistic, especially the politicians and exporters, thought they had defeated H5N1. But alas, the virus had simply taken a brief vacation.

- M.D.

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