South Africa’s chicken producers are under increasing pressure that is likely to last for months as they will not be able to keep up with local demand.
This comes as the local poultry industry has been ravaged by an avian influenza (bird flu) outbreak that has led to the culling of between 7.5 million and 8 million chickens.
This outbreak has spread rapidly across the country over the past few months and has affected most of the country’s provinces.
Professor Robert Bragg from the Univerisity of the Free State Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry said this virus is particularly dangerous because it is airborne, meaning it can spread through wind.
Bragg told Newzroom Afrika that while stopping chickens from contracting the virus through good biosecurity measures is possible, it spreads rapidly once it reaches a flock.
“It’s a devastating disease in poultry flocks. It can wipe out a poultry house of 30,000 to 40,000 birds in 3 or 4 days,” he said.
In South Africa, vaccination against these types of diseases is considered a last resort, and the policy is “stamping out”. In other words, if a flock becomes infected, it is culled.
Between 7.5 million and 8 million birds have been culled in South Africa since the outbreak of this bird flu strain.
This is partly because of how quickly the disease spreads, but Bragg said there is also a zoonotic aspect to this protocol, meaning there is a possibility that it can cross the species barrier and affect humans.
“Influenza virus is a particularly dangerous virus, not only for the birds,” he warned.
While culling can help stop the spread of the disease, it has significantly diminished South Africa’s poultry supply.
“It’s going to take a good 18, 20, 25 weeks to replace those breeder birds and get them up into breeding populations,” Bragg said.
“It’s going to be a substantial lag before we’ve caught up,” he said.
“What’s really worrying is the impact that this is having on the small to medium-sized poultry farmers because they’re 100% reliant on getting birds from the breeders.”
“And if the birds are being culled, they’re not getting replacement birds for their egg production or for their broilers. So it’s going to be a long-term problem.”
This could see the country having to rely on imported poultry products like chicken and eggs to fulfil the demand.
In particular, South Africa could look to countries like Brazil, which has a massive poultry industry.
“It’s a massive market; the industry is astronomically big, and they can land poultry products in South Africa,” Bragg said.
“At one stage, they were doing it cheaper than we could produce them locally, so there were tariffs put on the imported poultry to preserve jobs.”
However, Brazil may now have to step in to supply the country’s demand for chicken and eggs.
Bragg said Brazil also has a massive layer industry, i.e. egg-laying poultry birds.
He said that when he visited Brazil recently, there was one farmer that had more layer birds than the whole of South Africa.
Local food producers feel the heat
Several South African food producers have already warned of operational difficulties in their poultry segments as the companies battle load-shedding and rampant bird flu, threatening the country’s chicken supply.
Egg producer Quantum Holdings recently informed shareholders that a bird flu outbreak at some of its farms in Gauteng and North-West has affected approximately 1.5 million of its layer and breeding stock.
Earlier this year, an outbreak also affected approximately 420,000 birds at its Lemoenkloof layer farm in the Western Cape in April 2023.
The company said the overall impact of the bird flu outbreak on the South African poultry industry and its full financial effect on Quantum is not yet known.
However, the estimated value of the company’s birds affected by the outbreak is around R106 million.
Food producer RCL Foods also said in a recent trading update that its Rainbow Chicken business has been impacted by the bird flu outbreak, which is currently impacting its commercial poultry layer and broiler industry.
“The outbreak has affected 11 of our 19 sites in the inland region, which is one of three regions in which this business operates,” the company said.
“The outbreak has moved at a rapid pace, and the situation is constantly evolving.”
To date, around 410,000 birds have been culled, which has resulted in an estimated financial impact of R115 million for the company.