The culling of infected and in-contact chickens must be done in a humane manner and the assistance of the National Council of SPCAs could be called in if required, the Department Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (Dalrrd) advised yesterday in the face of an unprecedented outbreak of avian influenza.
This as South Africa contends with a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which the Agricultural Business Chamber told Business Report had infected more than 100 farms.
In an urgent request on Monday for the import and/or registration of vaccines to deal with the problem, the South African Poultry Association (Sapa) said the situation in the industry was critical.
Sapa said the culling of 7.2 million chickens, with about 11 million affected by the outbreak, highlighted the gravity of the crisis.
The most dominant strains are the highly pathogenic H5 and H7, which are affecting mainly Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State, Limpopo and North West.
Dalrrd spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said the infected and in-contact chickens must be isolated and destroyed by the responsible person, manager or owner of land on which there were animals and an owner of animals, under the supervision of an officer or any employee of the Provincial State Veterinary Services, which had been authorised by the director in terms of the Animal Diseases Act.
“This policy is in line with international recommendations in an effort to rapidly contain, control and eradicate HPAI,” Ngcobo said.
He said there were internationally recommended culling methods for poultry and each of these methods had advantages and disadvantages and might be appropriate only at certain ages.
Dalrrd said the responsible person, manager or owner of land on which there were animals and an owner of animals was responsible for the disposal.
The department said it had not prescribed the method to be used for culling, although composting was the preferred method of disposal for disease control purposes, since it involved minimal handling of the infected material.
“Other methods include burial, disposal at a landfill site, and disposal at a rendering plant. It is the duty of the responsible person to obtain approval from the various responsible departments (including the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, as well as the Department of Water and Sanitation) for the method used, to ensure the safe disposal of all potentially infectious material,” it said.
The employees of the Provincial State Veterinary Services had also been authorised to ensure that the required approval had been obtained and disposal was conducted in compliance with the obtained approval.
However, the government is at odds with poultry producers who say they must be compensated for culling their infected poultry.
Last month Astral Foods said it was pursuing a court case to have the government pay poultry farmers for forced culling of chickens.
Astral CEO Chris Schutte said: “We as producers are obliged to cull, or for a harsher word, kill birds that are infected simply as a control measure for the further spread of this disease.
“The unfortunate thing is that South Africa, as it’s known for many things, is the only country in the world where all three producers (Astral, RCL Foods, and Country Bird) are not compensated for forced culling of birds.
“By law anywhere else in the world, as a control measure, if you are forced to cull a bird, the governments and the governmental infrastructures come on to your farm, they take control, they quarantine, and kill the birds (and) dispose of them,” he said. The government then compensated the farmer for the birds culled.
Chief operations officer Gary Arnold said the group was in an ongoing legal battle regarding the compensation for poultry farmers forced to cull the birds.
“Most people would say the case was sub judice, but what I can say is that we have challenged this. We’ve challenged draft guidelines that were brought out in December 2017, as compensation guidelines for the culling of infected and in-contact poultry.
“We were successful in having those guidelines put aside. Any compensation claims would be adjudicated, and under the Animal Diseases Act, compensation can be granted… It’s an ongoing matter that we are engaging with,” he said.
Schutte said the no-compensation stance by the government led to complications that Astral was concerned about.
“Are people culling at the rate they should? Or because of the fact that they are not compensated, they are hiding this disease or not culling at the rate that they should, which builds up the viral load in the high-density areas and attributes to the further spread. Compensate people and we will control this, and if you don’t want to compensate me, allow me to vaccinate,” he said.
Industry in crisis
Sapa said many farms were now standing empty, and people employed on a no work, no pay basis were facing severe income losses due to the crisis.
“We are witnessing a rapid decline in poultry and egg production, which, if left unchecked, could result in a devastating blow to the South African economy,” it said.
The industry said that to date, it had lost approximately 30% of its broiler breeding stock, 50% of its layer breeding stock, and 30% of all commercial layers. It said this alarming scale of infection and culling raised serious concerns about food security in South Africa.
Sapa said a prolonged crisis could lead to shortages of poultry products, affecting the primary staple protein source relied upon by millions of South Africans.
“As farms continue to face losses and uncertainty, the jobs of about 110 000 people employed by the poultry industry remain at risk. If this situation is allowed to persist, the resulting job losses will exacerbate the already dire unemployment predicament in South Africa,” it said.