What it’s like to organize the slaughter of tens of thousands of chickens

Leon the vet in a tidy barn.  he is wearing

Léon in an empty stable.

in the series Revenue model we dive into unusual ways in which humans scrape their existence together.

The worst outbreak of bird flu to date has hit Europe, and it is also being felt in the Netherlands – the dunes on Texel, for example, are strewn with dead sandwich stars. Therefore, since October 26, 2021, poultry farms must keep their poultry indoors to prevent contact with infected wild birds. In addition to this duty to shelter, a screening duty applies to hobby owners. However, bird flu is still being diagnosed on a poultry farm somewhere every few days. More than three million animals have now been killed.

How does that ‘cleanup’ really work? What is involved in killing and removing tens of thousands of chickens? Because I am curious about this, I am contacting the Dutch Food and Consumer Safety Authority, the responsible body. They pair me with one of their supervising veterinarians during slaughter: Léon Labout (50). I meet Léon in the heart of poultry farming: Gelderse Vallei. Here we visit a company where 60,000 chickens have just been killed. As we walk through the extinct stables, I ask Léon what goes through his head when he gasps hundreds of thousands of chickens, what it takes to be killed, and whether all the dead chickens ever make him sad.

VICE: Hi Leon. How does a barn like this actually get infected with bird flu?
That’s very hard to say. The virus, which comes from a wild bird, somehow enters the barn. How exactly this happens is unclear. It can happen in many ways: by humans, animals, products or even the wind. The farmer does everything he can to protect his chickens, but despite all the hygiene measures, it can still happen that the virus slips into the barn.

How does a poultry farmer find out that the chickens have bird flu?
Suddenly there are many dead chickens in the barn. Or there are sick animals. A poultry farmer then reports this to the Dutch Food and Consumer Safety Authority (NVWA). If a report is received there, someone will be sent to it immediately.

the cleared barn from the outside

Someone like you?
Yes. I have a guard every six weeks where I can be called up 24 hours a day for seven days if a report is made. Then I go out with my cotton swabs to test the animals. The samples I take go directly to the laboratory. I want a result within a few hours. Often it is not bird flu, but if it is, then we get rid of it as soon as possible.

How fast is fast?
There is no more than twelve hours between the notification and the approval. It is important that this happens as soon as possible. Because every chicken with bird flu is a kind of virus factory. In fact, when we look at a report and we think it’s bird flu, we’re already preparing everything. Then we are ready with the gas car.

Does it ever happen that a farmer does not show up because he does not want the chickens to be gassed?
None. A poultry farmer wants to report a sick chicken as soon as possible. Because the faster you report, the less virus you have in the barn. This is especially important because you want to prevent the virus from spreading in your area. You are also responsible for the business around you.

What does a clearance look like?
On the clearing day we drive to the place with a team of about sixty people. These are people from the gas company, drivers, people from catering, people from NVWA, but above all a lot of rapists. Rapists are people who pick up the chickens after they have been gassed. These are often hundreds of thousands of chickens to be picked up one by one. So it’s quite labor intensive. Using hoses, we bring CO2 gas into the stables to be cleared. Where necessary, tape the cracks. The entire barn is filled with sensors to monitor the concentration of CO2.

Is there anyone in the stable?
None. Because that gas is also deadly to humans. The sensors allow us to measure what is happening in the barn. When all the chickens are dead, we open the doors to shut off the gas. Then I’m the first to look. Then I check if the chickens are nice and if they are all dead.

What do you do if one is still alive?
It does not happen. But I always have a drug with me to give a chicken a lethal injection. If it ever happens.

empty stable
Leon talks to the poultry breeder, they are wearing blue overalls.

Léon talks to the poultry farmer.

Then all the chickens are gathered. It is sometimes hours, but sometimes also working days. Eventually they are all in a container and they are driven to Rendac. This is the company where they get destroyed.

What is your role in all this?
I’m a kind of manager. I monitor the whole process. It is quite a task, with many people and many things. There must be a toilet, a shower trolley, a truck filled with materials and personal protective equipment. And to make sure all this goes smoothly, that’s my job. I’m the director of the place.

What does it do to you? The clearing?
It does not make me sad. But it’s not fun. I never think: yippee, I can go to a killing. I think: yes, we managed to clean up quickly according to plan. It gives a kick.

A stone statue of a chicken.

The only chicken left.

Do you ever find it difficult?
What I find difficult is to clear stables as a preventative measure. If bird flu is detected somewhere, all establishments within a radius of one kilometer from that establishment will also be killed as a precautionary measure. Clearing healthy animals that may never have been infected is more difficult than clearing animals that cannot be rescued. I also have a hard time believing that poultry farmers are sometimes completely destroyed. Sometimes someone is crying or screaming loudly. And that’s pretty logical. It’s their animal, it’s their passion, and it’s costing them money.

Do poultry farmers receive compensation when their animals are killed?
If a bird flu is detected in a company, an assessor determines the current value of the animals. Poultry farmers get this amount back. Partly from the public sector and partly from the animal health fund to which they pay. However, this amount is nothing compared to the actual damage. Because after an approval, a company is empty for at least weeks, but sometimes also months. You first have to buy new animals from the breeder and now that there is so much bird flu, it is quite busy there. There are farms that were closed down in October and still have not got new animals. This often costs poultry farmers tons on top of the current market value of their animals.

Do you actually have chickens yourself?
None. You can not do that if you do my job. Suppose you have the virus with you, then you can transmit it.

Thank you, Leon.

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