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Judge Denies the USDA’s Motion to Dismiss Mercy For Animals’ Lawsuit

Update: On March 29, 2021, the Central District of California denied a motion by the USDA to dismiss our lawsuit challenging the USDA’s dangerous and shortsighted avian flu response plan. The USDA had argued that Mercy For Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and Farm Sanctuary (the plaintiffs) lacked standing to challenge the USDA’s inadequate response plan. The court found instead that plaintiffs’ members and supporters have a concrete interest in the government’s failure to prepare a full environmental impact statement before developing the plan, which could have led to an alternative plan incentivizing lower-density bird farming.

We are pleased that this lawsuit—which highlights the interconnectedness of animal suffering, zoonotic disease, and environmental justice—will now move forward.

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Mercy For Animals has joined a federal lawsuit that challenges the United States Department of Agriculture’s inadequate response plan for highly pathogenic avian influenza (“bird flu”). The lawsuit—which was originally filed by the Humane Society of the United States and now includes Farm Sanctuary—aims to prove that the USDA’s current bird-flu response plan is shortsighted and dangerous and to force the department to do a full environmental impact assessment before developing a new plan.
Three out of four emerging infectious diseases in people are zoonotic, passed from animals to humans. Designed for maximum profit, industrialized poultry facilities—or factory farms—create perfect breeding grounds for disease. With so many animals kept in crowded, filthy conditions, viruses can more easily mutate into deadly forms and spread, circulating among the animals or carried by workers, insects, and rodents.
Preventing the development and spread of dangerous pathogens should be a top priority for the federal government. The USDA could help reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases by limiting the confinement of animals in factory farms, such as requiring cage-free environments for egg-laying hens, increasing the space available per animal, and lowering the number of animals allowed to be kept in the same facility. Instead, the agency has decided in its response plan to essentially subsidize cruel and dangerous factory farming by using taxpayer dollars to reimburse poultry farms that lose chickens to disease—disease the farms’ terrible conditions help promote.
The USDA’s plan also permits “depopulation,” or mass on-farm killing. Approved methods outlined by the American Veterinary Medical Association include a variety of agonizing techniques, such as covering birds with foam so they suffocate. Research demonstrates that after they are covered, chickens can take up to four and a half minutes to die. Poultry scientist Dr. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph in Ontario said:
Foam is a horribly inhumane way to kill birds. You can’t tell if they are suffering or vocalizing because they are covered up.
The USDA plan also allows environmentally hazardous disposal methods, such as open-air burning and burying dead birds in unlined pits, which can release harmful chemicals—including pharmaceuticals and dioxin—into soil, air, and water.
Mercy For Animals is also pleased to join the lawsuit because it highlights the ongoing problem of environmental justice in this country. The suit challenges the USDA’s failure to adequately address the environmental impacts of the bird-flu response plan on low-income and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) communities near factory farms. Like many polluters, large-scale poultry factory farms are disproportionately located in low-income areas and communities of color, and research shows that BIPOC communities suffer higher rates of exposure to pollution and hazardous waste.
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