/ 7 May 2024

Tinned fish overtakes chicken as South Africa’s preferred protein

Lucky Star pilchards
Canned pilchards are sold in smaller quantities (typically 400g cans and smaller) which gives consumers some flexibility regarding their purchasing patterns.

Pilchards has surpassed chicken as the most favoured protein in South Africa, according to the Competition Commission’s Essential Food Pricing Monitoring report. 

Released on Monday, the report showed that the avian flu outbreak, first reported at the beginning of June 2023, pushed chicken prices up to an unaffordable level. 

A total of 8.5 million broilers and layer chickens were culled from April to November 2023 as a result of the outbreak, the commission reported. The government allowed 30 986 tonnes of poultry meat imports as a safety measure to stabilise the supply of chicken during the flu outbreak. 

From June to December 2023 the retail price of chicken increased by 0.58% while the producer price rose by 8.80%. 

In December 2023, canned pilchards cost consumers R1.12 per protein gram, while frozen chicken was R0.91 per gram, according to the report. Beef, at R2.81 per gram, was the most expensive. 

Although consumers viewed pilchards as an alternative, the canned fish is not the most affordable source of protein. A gram of protein from pilchards cost R1.12 in December 2023.

The most affordable protein is dry beans, which cost R0.32 per protein gram, followed by eggs at R0.48 per protein gram. 

Canned pilchards are sold in smaller quantities (typically 400g cans and smaller) which gives consumers some flexibility regarding their purchasing patterns. 

This price increase is reflected in the sales figures of the listed canned pilchard producers, Oceana and Premier Fishing.

Oceana, which owns Lucky Star, reported a sales volume growth of 9% across local and export markets going from 8.8 million cartons in 2022 to 9.6 million in 2023. 

Kagiso Zwane, an economist at the commission, said: “While pilchards might not be the cheapest source of protein per gram, there are clearly some benefits which consumers think are relevant as inflation went up and load-shedding was more frequent.” 

Zwane said pilchards have value to the consumer because the fish is easily stored and does not need refrigeration. Moreover, the fish is available in smaller quantities for people who do not, or cannot, do large grocery shops. 

“There is also a wide flavour range, which depending on consumers preferences, can reduce expenditure on other ingredients to enhance flavour,” Zwane added. 

Canned pilchards are zero-rated for VAT, which may help them remain more affordable. 

“Within this context, consumer decisions to swop items in their basket for other foods, such as chicken for canned pilchards, are likely to continue and remain an important feature of grocery shopping in the coming months,” Zwane said. 

The report noted that, at 5.1% year-on-year, March 2024 marked the lowest rate in food inflation since September 2020. 

This figure follows a period of significantly higher food inflation, which put pressure on household budgets. South Africa’s food inflation rate rose to a 14-year high of 14.4% year-on-year in March 2023.

The Household Affordability Index tells a similar story of food inflation. The average cost of the household food basket increased by 6.2% (R312.36) from R5 023.95 in April 2023 to R5 336.31 in April 2024.