/ 8 October 2023

Government urged to confront looming egg shortages amid bird flu crisis

Cartons Of Fresh Organic Eggs For Sale
The supply of egg and poultry meat is steadily increasing following shortages triggered by a bird flu outbreak that began in April

The government must take urgent action and amend its poultry masterplan policy to confront the outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) which has led to the culling of about 7.5 million birds and an emerging shortage of eggs in some parts of the country in recent weeks.

This is the call from local poultry importers following unprecedented outbreaks of two strains of avian flu — HPAI H7 and HPAI H5 — across seven provinces, including the Western Cape, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State.

Some supermarket shelves in Gauteng ran out of eggs this week while others in KwaZulu-Natal  displayed signs apologising to customers for the current shortage of the product.

Trade, Industry and Competition Minister Ebrahim Patel last week ordered an “expedited” investigation into the possibility of providing poultry importers with a rebate on general tariffs and all anti-dumping duties for a temporary period.

According to a notice published in the Government Gazette on 2 October for public comment it is proposed that rebates be considered for “meat and edible offal, fresh, chilled or frozen” chicken.

Fred Hume, the managing director of Hume International — an import/export company based in Gqeberha — said despite Patel’s announcement that the government is considering a temporary rebate on import duties, long-drawn-out commissions and investigations hamper the flow of trade.

“Our government needs to have more flexible policies when threats face the poultry industry and they must make it possible to open markets and adjust tariffs much faster and with less red tape. Avian flu is here to stay, and so we need to look at biosecurity in a whole new light,’ Hume said.

Hume said the government needed to confront the impact on food security by adopting a flexible approach to local production and international trade.

“This is urgent. We need to work out — everyone in the industry — how to meet and mitigate the shocks to food security in South Africa. There should not be annual cycles, or long-term investigations and reports. When our local industries are in trouble, we must open up to imports. And when our local industries recover, we can go back to supporting local production,” he said.

”The Poultry Master Plan must be relooked and reworked. It is imperative that duties are automatically suspended for a period of at least six months in the event of more than, for example, X million birds being culled as a result of HPAI, and this needs to be recorded in the master plan. We cannot afford to negotiate temporary suspensions on what may soon be an annual basis considering the frequency of outbreaks of HPAI around the world.”

Association of Meat Importers and Exporters chief executive Paul Matthew said the local poultry industry was “disingenuous” when it comes to imports.

 “They were quoted this week as saying that importers had reacted to the outbreak by importing more chicken, and that imports could be as much as 50 000 million tonnes per month,” Matthew said.

“I really don’t know where they get these figures from, because the latest import statistics show that August 2023 total poultry imports, excluding Mechanically deboned meat, were around 11 000 million tonnes, and the bone-in imports were around 3000 million tonnes.

“When discussing imports, it is always important to draw a distinction between bone-in chicken (leg quarters and wings) and mechanically deboned meat (the main ingredient of processed meats such as polony) which is entirely imported as it is not manufactured in this country. The South African poultry industry consistently conflates the two in order to make the volume of imports look higher.

“It is also extremely unrealistic to think that the world is waiting to assist South Africa with cheap poultry. Our local food service businesses have specific requirements and approval processes that take time to be negotiated and these cannot be substituted with imports overnight. World-wide, producers are cutting back on production. 

“Additionally, our authorities are slow to open markets after avian flu outbreaks with stifled negotiations. And the ultimate reality is that imported chicken is no longer affordable because of the depreciating rand and increased duties,” Matthew added.

Democratic Alliance Trade, Industry and Competition spokesperson Dean Macpherson called for a suspension of high tariffs on poultry, saying the avian flu outbreak presents a threat to food security.

“Food producers are already under pressure from load-shedding. Millions of chickens have already been culled which has led to substantial losses for producers, but has also led to consumer shortages. There is already a shortage of eggs, and we are likely to see a reduced supply of poultry meat in the coming months,” he said.

Macpherson said the government had introduced the high import tariffs to protect large domestic poultry producers and to bolster local industries. However,  this had limited competition and kept prices high.

“If tariffs were lifted, this could see a price reduction of up to 33%,” he said.

Meanwhile, the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development is looking at the possibility of introducing a vaccination to contain the spread and impact of avian influenza. 

Minister Thoko Didiza, met with retailers to discuss the impact of avian influenza and the supply constraint on the egg production sector last week.    

Didiza briefed retailers on the containment measures that have been taken to limit the spread of the disease and on the possible solutions to manage outbreaks in the short and the medium-term, the department said.

“The minister is focusing on measures to improve the availability of egg supply to consumers and simultaneously putting measures (in place) to contain the spread of the disease,” it said.

It added that Didiza was exploring the possibility of a vaccination and was working on improving the efficiency of issuing import permits for egg products to ensure sufficient supplies to consumers.