Eggs on store shelves are quickly becoming more expensive – and in some places increasingly scarce – with consumers sharing their questions and concerns about it on social media. Players in the egg industry attribute the shortages to the prevailing bird flu outbreak which is forcing farmers to cull laying hens in large numbers.
According to the South African Poultry Association (Sapa), just over 5 million laying hens have been culled; this represents 20% of the national herd. There is currently a shortage of eggs, but since 80% of the laying hens still produce eggs, the supply of eggs will not dry up.
The two strains, H5 and H7, are extremely contagious and a farmer in Gauteng told RNews that he knew exactly when one of his cages was infected: it was the day a truck with slaughter chickens drove past his farm.
It took a while before a vaccine could be approved for use, but it seems that things are now coming to a head.
Izaak Breitenbach, head of Sapa’s broiler department, told RNews that the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development (DALRRD) has agreed that vaccines for the two strains can be imported. It will take between two and six months before it can be deployed. An H7 vaccine is also being developed locally.
As summer approaches, the outbreaks also decrease and farmers will then start to replenish their herds.
State steps in
Thoko Didiza, the minister of DALRRD, is trying to get government officials and the chicken industry to work together regarding the crisis. Lately she has been meeting with different players in the poultry industry. Earlier in the week it was retailers’ turn, after she met with Sapa last week.
In the meeting with the retailers, Didiza informed them about the containment measures taken to limit the spread of the disease, as well as possible solutions to manage such outbreaks in the short and medium term. This includes vaccinations.
It was clearly highlighted that the biggest challenge is on the egg production side, where there are notable shortages in some regions of the country.
The minister also agreed to issue permits for the import of eggs.
Regarding broilers, Didiza and Trade and Industry Minister Ebrahim Patel are exploring some trade instruments to facilitate the supply of chicken meat.
Broiler chickens get off lightly
Breitenbach says bird flu does not affect broilers directly, but the breeding material, i.e. the laying hens that must lay and hatch the eggs, so that the day-old chicks can be supplied to producers who raise the chickens to be slaughtered.
“We have culled just over 2.5 million breeding hens and this represents approximately 30% of the national flock. Meat production in the short term can decrease by 30% due to the disease and resulting slaughters. There will therefore be a shortage due to the effects of the virus now, but the supply of broilers in the long term will not be such a big problem.
“We do have to bear in mind that broiler prices and consumption rise every year between September and December.”
He says fortunately there are two alternative sources that supply broilers to South Africa.
“The factors that will lead to us not feeling the full effects of the disease and slaughters of breeding chickens is that the importers of chicken meat will use the opportunity to import more.
“The local broiler industry is also in the process of importing more than 11.5 million fertilized hatcher eggs by air freight. It will be hatched and the broilers will be grown to be slaughtered.”
However, Breitenbach warns that anti-dumping tariffs should not be reduced again as was done during the restrictions. Although the government tried to ensure that there was enough and cheap chicken meat available in South Africa, this caused a lot of damage to the local chicken farmers and destabilized the market.
“There is enough chicken meat in the world that is already imported and the anti-dumping tariffs are not stopping imports. Countries like Brazil, the USA, Ireland, Spain and Argentina are open and exporting chicken meat to us.”
Breitenbach says it is indeed difficult to predict when the crisis will be over.
“It will depend on when the rate of new infections decreases and when fewer chickens are culled. Early data suggests we may be at the peak, but the next few weeks will be important to determine if we were right.”
The broiler industry’s contingency plan is to focus on biosecurity to curb the disease.
He says the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, where the H5 strain occurs, are not affected in that way. The problem is in the greater Gauteng area which spills over into Mpumalanga, Limpopo, North West and the Free State, where the H7 strain is found and continues to spread.