Poultry workers reeling

Published Oct 7, 2023


Durban - Vets, poultry farmers and farmworkers are reeling under the strain of avian flu which has seen jobs lost and millions of chickens culled since the start of the outbreak.

Yesterday the South African Veterinary Association (Sava) said people in the industry were suffering from burnout and questioning the methods used to halt the spread of the disease.

“As professionals on the coalface, it is the responsibility of the vet to tell farmers that their businesses are all but destroyed. They face the workers who will lose their jobs. They oversee culling of birds, which is very stressful. Many veterinarians who are involved in this are questioning the ethics of large-scale culling programmes instead of vaccination,” said Sava.

It said at least six million chickens ‒ between 25% to 30% of the national flock ‒ had been affected since the outbreak in June of the H7N6 strain in Gauteng as well as parts of Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the North West. At present there are no cases in the Western Cape or KZN.

However, Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said the containment measures seemed to be working.

“The numbers are no longer increasing so what you are dealing with now is culling, disposing of that chicken, cleaning of the places where they've kept that chicken, disinfection and then they begin to start the process of growing the chicken again,” he said.

Sava said there were signs that the spread of H7N6 was under control but said the situation remained risky.

“As flocks that are not infected and have no immunity are placed on infected farms, there is a real risk that the disease will break out again. There are several effective vaccines available for this disease but not currently registered in South Africa and if there was a serious attempt to achieve herd immunity by vaccinating as many birds in the affected areas as possible the virus spread would be contained.”

The positive news came as the first consignment of imported eggs to make up for the current shortfall is expected to arrive next week.

Ngcobo said the usual process involved had been shortened because of the crisis. Some eggs will be imported from SADC countries while other importers will source supplies from further afield.

He also warned that the consumer would have to fork out about 10c or 20c more per egg.

While some shops have limited the amount of eggs available to each consumer, Ngcobo said there was unlikely to be a shortage of chicken meat in the country.

This week Minister Thoko Didiza met retailers to discuss how to manage the crisis, including vaccination, and egg supply issues.

Ngcobo said many other countries also did not vaccinate its chickens but the matter was under discussion.

He said even before the outbreak, South Africa imported chicken from Brazil and the US to meet demand. “We slaughter about three million chickens a day.”

Namibia and Botswana have banned the import of chicken and eggs from South Africa, but Ngcobo says other SADC countries relied on South Africa for poultry supplies.

Mervyn Abrahams from the Pietermaritzburg Justice and Dignity Group said the shortage was a massive blow to cash-strapped consumers because apart from tinned pilchards, chicken and eggs were the cheapest source of protein for most people. He said the huge fuel hike which came into effect this week would also affect prices.

Registered dietitian Tabitha Hume said protein formed a key part of a healthy diet and that about 20% of daily intake should be made up of protein. Alternative sources of protein could come from beans, chickpeas, lentils, meat substitutes, quinoa and tofu.

Yesterday, the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) called on retailers to switch to cage-free eggs, because chickens were among the most abused animals bred for food.

SAFCEI’s Cage-Free Campaign Coordinator, Zwelisha Shobede, said: “With the outbreak of avian flu in South Africa, we are calling on retailers and producers to make the change as we are once again faced with the reality that the switch to cage-free eggs must be made and now is the time to do it.

“Not only will cage-free farming ensure that egg-laying hens are raised in healthier conditions, this likely also means the eggs have a healthier ratio of omega 6 to 3 fatty acids which improves the overall quality of the eggs which consumers eat.”

The multi-faith eco-justice organisation said studies had shown that crowding hens “together in close confinement can induce stress and suppress their immune systems, making animals more susceptible to infections. Viral transmissions are also facilitated by animals being kept in proximity to one another and many factory farms confine animals to indoor spaces that lack adequate sunlight or ventilation, which allows viruses to survive longer without a host”.

The Independent on Saturday