The real danger caused by the economics of industrial food

In an unequal society, many families depend on cheap food. Government has a responsibility to set hi

The government response to the outbreak of H5N1 avian flu in East Anglia, creating a restriction zone, was a commendably speedy and justifiable precaution to protect local poultry breeders from Bernard Matthews's infected turkeys. As days have passed, it has become clear that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) believes (and hopes to persuade us) that the virus was transmitted to the factory by wild birds. One might have entered a ventilation shaft, or its faeces might have been picked up on boots and carried into the safe gated community of the battery farm.

Such comically xenophobic explanations are unconvincing. As Jonathan Leake argues on page 18, despite extensive studies by Defra, no live wild bird with H5N1 has ever been found in Britain (though one infected swan was much photographed in Scotland last year). While endorsing the highly speculative, Defra has been lamentably slow to build on the knowledge we do have. Bird flu is found almost exclusively where poultry are intensively reared. We worry about H5N1 not because it is highly contagious to human beings, but because of the very real danger that it could mutate into a virus transmitted between humans, launching a flu pandemic.

Poultry farming is a global industry. The Bernard Matthews factory, with its production-line output of millions of birds a year, has counterparts in Hungary, which have also experienced recent outbreaks of the virus. In Asia, billions of birds are raised in intensive production. So, when we hear of "explosive" outbreaks (in Vietnam, China and more recently Nigeria), this tells us that the conditions in which poultry are being kept favour the rapid spread of the virus.

The events of recent days remind us of the lessons of Britain's BSE crisis, including the threats of inducing unnaturally rapid growth in animals, high dosing with antibiotics, maximum "mechanical recovery" of all parts of the carcass, and recycling of waste and faeces as fertiliser. We are forced to think more than we would like about the preparation of intensively farmed animals for supermarkets, fast-food outlets and dinner tables.

Fred Landeg, the government's deputy chief vet, was quick off the mark in calling on ornithologists to help him pursue disease-carrying migrants. However, he has so far had nothing to say about safe and humane practice in these highly industrialised, profit-driven food factories - nor the danger such poultry farms pose to the wider population.

If H5N1 does mutate into a virus that can be transmitted rapidly between humans, the consequences would be a catastrophic loss of life around the world. It has been estimated that in Britain, the toll will be in the tens of thousands, far exceeding the deaths from any terrorist attack. But while this government has been strenuous in arguing the case for curtailing individual liberty in order to protect us from the consequences of terrorism, it takes the freedoms of profit-makers more seriously.

Consumers have a choice, say ministers. If people want to pay £2 for a chicken, they cannot expect free-range, corn-fed birds, say the poultry producers. Consumers are forcing supermarkets to increase the availability of healthily reared animals. But the mark-up on such quality is high. We must not delude ourselves. In an increasingly unequal society, a minority of families are dependent on very cheap food. The government has a responsibility to set high minimum standards. That was the lesson learned, and acted on, after the BSE outbreak when the worst practices of some cattle farmers, barbaric to animals and treacherous to humans, came under the spotlight. Now it is time to turn similar attention to poultry farming practices.

We have much more to learn about avian flu and the government is right to set in train stringent precautions against the spread of H5N1. But we have also to learn the lessons of the recent past - specifically the dangerous consequences of wanton disrespect for the planet, our fellow creatures and ourselves.

The reckless economics of industrial food production will, for the moment, do us far more harm than migrating swans.

Too much for a good man to take

The NS has previously resisted the temptation to which other media have succumbed. But finally we've cracked. We must ask: is this political correctness gone mad? We refer not to an outrage over Lottery funding, nor to a local council's strictures against homophobia.

Darrell Hair may have come to readers' attention last summer during a Test match at the Oval. There he accused the visiting Pakistani team of tampering with the ball - as close as cricket gets to heresy. As a result, the Pakistanis stormed off the pitch and the match was handed to England. (It must be said that our sporting nation should be grateful for any help it can get.) After an inquiry, Hair was demoted and Pakistan was cleared of any wrongdoing. In the meantime, the umpire had written to the International Cricket Council, the governing body, and offered to resign in return for compensation of $500,000.

Hair has clearly not recovered from the trauma, and having to officiate in a match between Kenya and Scotland (a football comparison would be Azerbaijan v Liechtenstein) may have been the final straw. Now he is said to be planning to sue the ICC and the Pakistan Cricket Board for racial discrimination, claiming that he has been punished whereas his black Caribbean junior partner was not.

We support the rights of beleaguered communities to struggle against repression. If that includes portly, self-important and irritable Australians, then so be it.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia