Editorial |

Israel's Chicken Disaster Could Have Been Prevented

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Men in hazmat suits exterminate chickens infected with avian flu
Men in hazmat suits exterminate chickens infected with avian flu.Credit: Rami Shllush

Some 600,000 egg-laying hens have been killed over the last two weeks due to the outbreak of avian flu in the chicken coops at the moshav of Margaliot. The hens were killed because of the need to stop the spread of the epidemic and prevent any health risks to the public. Avian flu is transmitted from animals to humans, which is why when it breaks out, there is no choice but to dispose of the affected animals. This is an essential precaution meant to protect both animals and humans.

However, this incident could have been prevented if correct steps had been taken at all stages prior to the outbreak. For years, veterinary services at the Ministry of Agriculture have been warning of a scenario such as the one unfolding in Margaliot, repeating these warnings in April. The reason for this is that chicken coops in Israel are a ticking time bomb.

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Ninety-four percent of the chickens in Israel are housed in what is known as battery cages, consisting of rows and columns of identical cages. These are old cages, unchanged since the ‘50s and ‘60s. These are primitive cages, placed within communities and adjacent to homes. Hens are kept in these cages under harsh conditions, five or six per small cage. Each chicken has an area of only 53 square inches, usually covered in filth. Coops are cleaned only once or twice a year, turning them into disease incubators. Before the outbreak of avian flu, Israel’s chicken coops were afflicted with Newcastle disease, and one third of them are permanently contaminated by Salmonella.

Such primitive conditions are no longer accepted worldwide. Already back in 2012, the European Union outlawed battery cages. The European Union has also committed to outlaw more modern cages by the end of this decade, requiring a transition to no cages at all. The reason is the need to move to cleaner and healthier coops that take into consideration the hens’ living conditions. The upgrade includes a transition to newer, larger and more modern chicken coops that will be built outside communities, at a safe distance from one another.

If Israel had changed to modern coops, it would have been possible to nip the epidemic in the bud. Hens would have been infected in a small number of coops, not in all the coops in an entire community.

However, since 2007, the farmers lobby has been preventing this essential upgrade while endangering public health, making eggs more expensive and continuing the systematic abuse of these animals. Despite the political pressure, it’s time to oblige farmers to adopt new standards and prevent another such tragedy.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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