USA Poultry and Egg Export Council president Jim Sumner was in SA last week to meet sub-Saharan African government officials on poultry best practice and managing avian influenza. The US egg industry, excluding broiler chickens, lost more than $4bn during bird flu outbreaks in 2014 and 2015. "It decimated our industry," Sumner says.

Outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N8 strain of the virus have been hammering SA’s poultry industry for the past few months. Outbreaks had earlier been identified in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Western Cape is the latest province to be hit. It has confirmed 26 cases of the H5N8 strain.

"We are continuing to work with the private sector to mitigate the impact of the disease. By the end of [last] week, we estimate that around 2-million chickens and ducks would have been culled," says Alan Winde, Western Cape economic opportunities MEC.

Anton Bredell, Western Cape local government, environmental affairs and development planning MEC, oversees the provincial disaster management centre. "We remain concerned about the impact on job security and food security given the sheer scale and speed this crisis is moving at," he says. It is the first time that there has been an outbreak of avian influenza in South African poultry, Bredell says. "Previous avian influenza outbreaks mainly affected ostriches," he says.

There are more than 380-million chickens in the SADC region, and the sector is the largest contributor to agriculture

RCL Foods, a major South African poultry producer, confirmed last week an outbreak of the H5N8 strain at its Heuningdal breeder farm in the Western Cape. It earlier experienced an outbreak at its Viva breeder farm near Muldersdrift in Gauteng.

The affected sites have been culled, with losses amounting to about 5% of the company’s total breeder stock. This has so far cost RCL about R26m. It says there have been more than 50 reported cases of bird flu since June. As there is no known effect on humans, "there is no concern from a chicken-consumption perspective".

RCL says containing the virus’s spread is proving difficult. Experts say migratory birds from Europe have brought the disease to the region. They also say tracking the source and spread of the virus is almost impossible, and that a broad, co-ordinated 24-hour emergency response by industries and governments across the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region is a first step in stopping outbreaks.

Indeed, Southern African states have responded in a co-ordinated manner to the regional outbreaks of the virus, urging countries to act quickly.

There are more than 380-million chickens in the SADC region, and the sector is the largest contributor to agriculture. SA has about 145-million commercial chickens, the South African Poultry Association says. A widespread flu outbreak would lead to huge economic losses.

SA is the world’s fifth-largest chicken importer, according to the latest data from the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council. The body says chicken consumption in SA exceeds domestic production, causing demand for imports.

The local industry is lobbying the government for more barriers to chicken, mainly from Brazil and the EU. The US can export 65,000 tonnes of frozen chicken a year to SA under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.

USA Poultry and Egg Export Council data show imports from the US amount to 4.7% of chicken imports into SA.

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