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Chicken meat shortage looms in South Africa due to devastating avian influenza outbreak

The veterinarian said the only way to recovery he saw was through expedited registration and use of vaccine. Picture Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

The veterinarian said the only way to recovery he saw was through expedited registration and use of vaccine. Picture Leon Lestrade. African News Agency/ANA.

Published Oct 9, 2023


Chicken meat will be scarce in South Africa in the coming weeks, warns Dr Greg Celliers, a veterinarian.

In an interview with the Business Report in his personal capacity, he said this was due to broiler breeders that have died leading to a shortage in broiler chicks supplied into the market.

"This is the worst disease outbreak our industry has suffered due to a single virus in a matter of 4 months," Celliers said.

The HPAI H7 outbreak has been devastating and has affected every adult bird in Gauteng resulting in the egg shortage consumers now observed at retailers,

Dr Celliers is also an executive Board Member of the World Veterinary Poultry Association and spoke to Business Report in his personal capacity.

The veterinarian said the spread appeared to be slowing down but only because there were no more birds left to infect.

"All affected broiler and layer breeders have either been culled or died. A small amount of recovered layer birds did not die and should come back into production. The challenge now is restocking bird numbers in an environment that is contaminated with virus.

Without a vaccine, this is simply not possible. All birds that will become adult layers need to be vaccinated, this is not negotiable."

Asked where did this leave businesses that sold chicken in the local market where did it leave a business that sold day-old chicks, Celliers said these companies relied on breeder flocks to produce hatching eggs.

"The eggs go to the hatchery and are hatched. The chicks are then supplied to broiler growers. Birds are grown to around 32 days and sold to the abattoir.

The abattoir then sells the final product to retailers and then consumers. If breeders are lost it affects the entire supply chain (everything connected to the chain is cut, in some cases as much as 50%)."

To recover, he said that a broiler breeder took 27 weeks before producing hatching eggs. He said 4 weeks later one could hatch the chicks. It took another 5 weeks to get the product to the market.

"So if I place breeders today and they don’t die, chicken meat will be returning to shelves in 36 weeks’ time," he said.

Dr Cellierssaid, however, the probability of this happening without vaccine was unlikely. According to him, the recovery time was entirely dependent on the availability of vaccine.

"I’ll give you the same example for table eggs. A layer breeder takes 24 weeks before the first eggs can be set. Four weeks later you will hatch those chicks. They then take 19 weeks before coming into lay. So their time frame is even longer at 47 weeks."

He said South Africa's Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development needed to finalise the guidelines for emergency registration of H7 vaccine. In addition, he said the country needed a realistic monitoring protocol for these vaccinated flocks.

The veterinarian said the only way to recovery he saw was through expedited registration and use of vaccine.

There has been a lot of talk around the tariffs on imported products to assist the consumer, he said: " I would like to emphasize that there has been no indication from government that affected poultry operations will be compensated for their losses.

Cheap imports of poultry products will simply make the local producers more uncompetitive in these challenging times. Producers are dealing with the increased cost of production due to lower throughput in all facets of production due to AI (breeders, hatcheries, broilers/eggs and abattoirs), high feed cost, load shedding and the increased cost of electricity, a record high diesel price and water shortages."

Last week, the South African Poultry Association's general manager Izaak Breitenbach said the industry was in distress.

"We have been in a loss situation since January this year and then on top of that have to fork out the cost of R1.20 per kg of meat produced just to mitigate load shedding. Now we have avian influenza in which we have culled in excess of 30% of our broiler breeder flocks that really negatively impact the industry," Breitenbach told Business Report.