Bird flu outbreak spreads to organic farm in northern Israel

H5N1 virus infects 5,500 chickens in community of Barak; Agriculture Ministry says it’s concerned about human infection

Workers in protective gear in Moshav Givat Yoav, in northern Israel, following an outbreak of the bird flu, December 29, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
Workers in protective gear in Moshav Givat Yoav, in northern Israel, following an outbreak of the bird flu, December 29, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The avian flu outbreak that has killed vast numbers of domestic and wild fowl in recent weeks in northern Israel has spread to a new farm, the Agriculture Ministry said Thursday.

The H5N1 virus outbreak that began in the Hula Valley and the community of Margaliot in the upper Galilee, next to the Lebanese border, has now reached into the farming community of Barak, south of Afula.

There are around 5,500 chickens infected with the virus on an organic farm in Barak, the Agriculture Ministry said.

The ministry said it had isolated the coop housing the infected chickens and stopped the sale of eggs from the farm.

“We’re managing a complex and evolving situation that requires many responses,” Agriculture Minister Oded Forer said. “I have instructed our professional teams to continue taking action by all available means.”

He said he had allowed untaxed imports of eggs and that there would not be a shortage. The ministry said the coop in Barak produced around 100,000 eggs per year, accounting for around 2.4% of the organic egg market.

The ministry said it was concerned about the virus infecting humans who live near the infected fowl and that the Agriculture Ministry veterinarians had been working “according to emergency procedures” and actively monitoring all farms in the north.

The public was advised to make sure to thoroughly cook eggs and other chicken products to kill any viruses or bacteria.

Some 5,000 birds died of the disease in the Hula Lake Reserve in the worst outbreak of bird flu ever to hit Israel’s wild bird population.

Gathering the carcasses of wild cranes killed by avian flu at the Hula Lake Nature Reserve in northern Israel, December 27. (Hadas Kahaner, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

In Margaliot, more than half a million egg-laying chickens have died or been culled. All the poultry sheds are infected and have been sealed off by inspectors.

The Agriculture Ministry has not yet managed to pinpoint how the highly contagious viral disease H5N1 got into the Hula reserve, which attracts tens of thousands of cranes during the spring and summer migration seasons, particularly as food is distributed there to keep the birds away from commercial crop fields.

The danger of the bird flu outbreak jumping to humans is a serious source of concern, top epidemiologist Prof. Amnon Lahad said Wednesday.

“The widespread nature of the avian flu is very concerning, especially given that it is infecting chickens and not just wild birds. It’s made the move from wildlife to stock animals, and I’m hoping it won’t make the next step to humans,” he said.

Most bird flu strains don’t infect humans. However, four strains have caused concern: H5N1 since 1997, H7N9 since 2013, H5N6 since 2014 and H5N8 since 2016.

The first outbreak this fall was at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley, according to a notice sent out to poultry breeders on October 18 by the ministry’s veterinary service. Noting that avian flu was sometimes carried by wild birds — Israel sits on the annual migration route between Europe, Asia, and Africa — it called for the immediate transfer of all organic, free-range, and other outdoor chickens to closed facilities.

By November 3, the virus was also found at Kibbutz Maayan Zvi, near Zichron Yaakov, and as of November 21, it had spread to a duck farm in Kfar Baruch in the Jezreel Valley and a turkey farm in Ein Zurim, south of Kiryat Malachi in southern Israel.

Authorities have said the outbreak among chickens is partially due to farmers using primitive coops, unsanitary conditions and poor monitoring or reporting by farmers in Margaliot.

The farmers are up in arms over proposals to remove quotas for egg production and to open the industry up to local and international competition.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg called the outbreak “the worst blow to wildlife in the country’s history,” and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has discussed the outbreak with top security officials.

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