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Devastating new avian flu strain could see half of SA’s poultry stock culled

A poultry farm near Hartebeestporrt in Gauteng. A new strain of Avian influenza may force the cull of half of South Africa’s bird stock.

A poultry farm near Hartebeestporrt in Gauteng. A new strain of Avian influenza may force the cull of half of South Africa’s bird stock.

Published Sep 23, 2023


Durban - Chicken and egg prices are expected to soar and shortages loom as an outbreak of avian flu ‒ and the emergence of new strain H7N6 which may be airborne ‒ has resulted in the culling of a quarter of the country’s national flock.

South African Veterinary Association president Dr Paul van der Merwe said the situation was dire and would have a ripple effect on the multibillion-rand poultry sector.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end. We are probably going to lose a third or half of our flock. That’s going to have a massive impact on our egg production, on our chicken production. It is very, very serious currently.”

Van der Merwe warned that it was devastating for businesses as well as vets who had to cull up to 50 000 birds at a time.

“The policy currently in government is that you cull all the houses where the birds are affected. If there is a pen where the birds are affected, then they cull that whole house. So they will cull 10 000 or 20 000 birds in a house because there is one infected bird in that house,” he said.

So far most of the cases have been recorded in Gauteng, followed by Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the North West.

Migratory birds are the main transmitters of avian influenza (AI), according to Van der Merwe.

However, South African Poultry Association and Egg Organisation general manager Dr Abongile Balarane said they suspected the virus could be airborne and the wind might play a role in spreading it.

He said they were experiencing “something like a wildfire” in Gauteng as new cases of AI emerged every day.

“The old one (H1N5 strain) was easy, because we knew that sometimes it would move from farm to farm or from wild birds to domesticated birds. With this H7N6 we are still learning about it, but we’ve picked up that it seems as if it can also move through the wind, so it’s more likely to be airborne.

“So we hope we can start to have rains and a warmer temperature, then maybe this will start to disappear, but it’s moving through the wind now,” said Balarane.

Even before this outbreak, he said, farmers were taking strain because of the high price of feed, escalating fuel prices and electricity constraints.

Farmworkers’ jobs were on the line and it would take time and “fortunes of money” to restock poultry farms devastated by the outbreak.

“This is more of a national disaster, this is not something the industry can handle on its own. We need to discuss with the government what the future will look like,” said Balarane.

He has assured consumers that the available chicken and eggs were safe for consumption, but both products must be cooked above 60ºC to ensure safety.

Balarane said some stores had already put up signs that they were running out of eggs. He said there would be limited supplies for the duration of the outbreak and while they worked to restock farms, which could take months to get to normal production.

“Until that time, prices at some stage will follow the normal supply and demand forces.”

He said some traders would probably import poultry, but chickens and eggs would be available because the industry would “make a plan”.

“We will do whatever we can to restore the farms,” Balarane said.

FNB Agri-Business senior agricultural economist Paul Makube said the outbreak came as the industry reeled under load shedding costs, forcing producers to permanently use generators.

He added that the resurgent international Brent crude oil price ‒ which rose by 7.5% month-on-month in August to $85.12 a barrel and recently topped $90 (about R1 680) a barrel ‒ pushed the cost of production higher and the lower bird numbers could mean potential financial ruin.

He said industry insiders predicted a 9% price increase to try to recover costs, which “was not good news for the consumer”.

“For eggs the situation is immediate and upward price pressure is expected in the medium term. For broilers, indications are that there is sufficient stock heading into the festive season, but the situation might worsen in 2024 if the outbreak is not contained,” said Makube.

He said imports may be pricey “given the exchange rate depreciation and the recent implementation of anti-dumping duties on chicken meat from Brazil (265% plus the existing 62%) and other European countries namely, Ireland (158.4%), Poland (96.9%), Spain (85.8%), and Denmark (67.4%)”.

In the meantime, KZN chicken farmers and their distributors said they were waiting with bated breath to hear whether the avian flu epidemic would spread to the province.

“Touch wood, it seems to have stayed in Gauteng,” said Martie Schutte of Riversmead Poultry Farm on the South Coast. “We’re stringent about control and who comes on to the farm and we treat all vehicles. We try hard to keep it away.”

She predicted that people would immediately start stocking up on frozen birds and lower production, would mean fewer jobs.

Lee Pather, owner of Leepat Poultry in Silverglen, said it would take a year to recover from a large outbreak of avian flu.

“It looks as if the price of white meat and eggs will rocket.”

A producer of chicks on a smallholding near Durban, who did not wish to give his name, said he had heard of cases in KZN, but he would not need to cull.

“It’s only for the older birds. Broilers are not affected because they haven’t lived long enough to pick it up.”

However, his egg supply would be affected as breeder birds could be euthanised.

“This is a bad one,” he said.

Umbumbulu chicken farmer Sizwe Mathenjwa said when he heard about the epidemic in advance, he stopped producing the birds.

“You have to take such measures. The disease is airborne and you can’t see it.”

The Independent on Saturday