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Much like our rugby world champions, we believe that when we are facing a challenge we are stronger together. We believe this is the approach the country needs to take in managing both the short and long-term fallout from highly pathogenic avian influenza, commonly known as bird flu, as this is in the best interest of consumers. 

For some time, consumers have been facing rising food costs, particularly the cost of chicken, which is traditionally the most affordable and widely consumed protein staple in people’s shopping baskets. However, since June the country’s local poultry industry has been badly hit by the latest outbreak of bird flu. According to the SA Poultry Association, so far, 8.5-million birds have been culled in 2023, which includes 20% (6-million) of the country’s commercial layer flock and 30% (2.5-million) of the parent birds that produce the genetic stock for the overall chicken population. 

According to the department of agriculture’s records, the domestic poultry industry has not been able to produce enough chicken to supply local consumption levels for some years. During 2017/18, when the country grappled with one of its most severe bird flu outbreaks, the gap between what the country consumed and what was produced was 483,000 tonnes.

For 2018/19 it was 511,000 tonnes, 437,000 tonnes in 2019/20 and 2020/21, and 287,000 tonnes in 2021/22. Estimated shortages for 2022/23 are 460,000 tonnes. If we consider the current outbreak as causing a 16% reduction in domestic production in 2023/24, this gap will escalate to 847,000 tonnes. 

Shoppers around the country are experiencing shortages, which have already resulted in price increases. Wholesalers have seen a sharp increase in prices since the onset of the current outbreaks. Some wholesalers have seen the price of whole birds and chicken hearts increase by 20%, chicken necks by 17% and chicken carcasses and bones by 25%. This is especially concerning as these products are most consumed by low-income households.

The local poultry industry has initiated measures to address the shortages, such as importing over 80-million hatching eggs from Brazil over the next six months, but the reality is that there is a shortage now, which will persist for some time. The facts are incontrovertible — it takes 21 days to incubate an egg, and between 33 and 35 days to grow a chicken to a size where they are ready for the market. To fully restore the parent stock of chickens in the country will take between 12-18 months, even when bird flu is under control.

We need to find a way to make sure there is a steady supply of poultry for SA consumers. Even without the external supply shock caused by bird flu outbreaks, local producers are unable to meet consumer demands for chicken. Imports plug this gap and play a vital role in ensuring there is a constant supply of product in the market, providing the necessary competition to ensure prices are kept in check. Of course, imports are especially important when facing a bird flu outbreak. 

In our submission to the International Trade Administration Commission of SA (Itac) we recommended a reduction in import duties for 12 months on frozen bone-in chicken from 62% to 37%, boneless chicken from 42% to 12%, and to zero-rate chicken offal (carcasses, feet, heads and liver), which are the chicken products most consumed by low-income households and consumers. We also asked Itac to extend the rebate to shipments already on the water, to ensure immediate access to products. 

Given the long-lasting fallout from bird flu outbreaks, and the likelihood of recurrence, SA’s options for supplementing shortages will be severely limited without a temporary rebate on the ordinary customs duty. Trade, industry and competition minister Ebrahim Patel is very aware that the current outbreak has implications for cash-strapped consumers both in terms of availability and rising costs, as well as overall food security in the country.

In his directive to create a temporary rebate on imported chicken products, issued on October 2, he gave the industry and affected parties just two weeks to make submissions. This unusually short timeline was based on the understanding that the SA poultry market is facing the largest ever bird flu outbreak, and that urgent measures are required to protect consumers against shortages and price increases.

The temporary rebate will not harm domestic producers, but rather assist in keeping supply and prices of chicken products stable, which is to the benefit of cash strapped consumers, while allowing domestic producers to recover. 

It is essential that the country adopt an emergency and long-term approach to protecting consumers. For the short term, we need to mitigate the effect of the immediate crisis, not just with a rebate but to fast track all administrative measures related to permitting, customs and port clearance also need to be fast tracked to get product into the market quickly and responsibly.

It is important to note that government is taking a comprehensive approach to the current crisis. In addition to considering a rebate on imports, on October 27 the agriculture ministry said government is looking at providing R3.5bn in support to poultry farmers affected by bird flu. Details are believed to be under discussion with the Treasury, and we believe if granted this aid will go a long way towards helping local producers to recover, both small scale farmers and the large producers that employ many people and are critical to food security in SA.

Global experience shows that bird flu is likely to become the new normal in our country. This means we need to make sure we are looking beyond the current crisis. To extend the rugby metaphor, just as Coach Rassie developed a long-term plan to win the 2023 World Cup, SA needs a long term plan to mitigate the effect of future outbreaks. 

In addition to solving for the current crisis, we need a long-term strategy that focuses on preventing outbreaks and ensures areas that are virus-free are compartmentalised. And we need to do some work to strengthen our relations with the country’s trade partners. The fact that the SA Poultry Association was able to quickly procure hatchling eggs from Brazil is evidence that these strategic partnerships are profoundly important and must be preserved at all costs. SA needs to ensure import markets remain open, with strong trade relationships.

This is not about switching on and off import markets; we need consistent, solid trade relations, which allow for flexibility when markets close due to bird flu outbreaks or other challenges. All stakeholders need to work together to ensure poultry remains both affordable and available to consumers. In other words, we are stronger together. 

• Matthew is CEO of the Association of Meat Importers & Exporters.

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