According to the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development (DALRRD), poultry lovers in the Western Cape have nothing to fear. This follows growing concern amongst consumers that commercially produced poultry meat and eggs are not safe to eat because of the ongoing outbreak of an avian influenza strain in the province.
An outbreak of high pathogenicity avian influenza (HPAI), or bird flu, a highly contagious viral disease that affects both domestic and wild birds, has been confirmed on five commercial chicken farms in the province.
However, Reggie Ngcobo, spokesperson for the national department of agriculture, assured consumers that the bird disease poses no threat to the meat and eggs bought at retail markets.
“All affected farms have been immediately placed under quarantine and no live birds and eggs are allowed to be removed from the farms.
“The department would like to reassure consumers that commercial poultry meat and eggs are safe to eat. Care should however be taken when preparing food to avoid other food-borne pathogens,” Ngcobo cautioned.
He explained that birds infected with avian influenza get sick fairly quickly and die.
Spar bird flu notice
In the meantime, a single picture of a customer notice in what appears to be a Spar outlet has caused widespread panic. The picture, which has since gone viral, shows a Spar-branded notice informing customers that all egg promotions have been cancelled due to the bird flu outbreak.
However, Ngcobo said that generally the first sign of sick animals, including birds, is a drop in production, meaning that sick birds will produce very few (if any) eggs.
“This, together with the added mitigation of placing farms under quarantine, means no eggs from infected properties will make their way to shelves.”
Furthermore, a Spar owner in Strand near Cape Town, told Food For Mzansi that their store experienced no shortages in eggs from suppliers. The Spar owner said a notice of that kind required management sign-off from their head office and is therefore either fake or an old picture.
Dr Lucia Anelich, a Pretoria-based microbiologist, also assured the public that the H5N1 influenza virus will not affect humans.
“Avian influenza is a virus that affects the animal. It, therefore, has an impact on only the bird and is not transmitted to humans. Some viruses can be transmitted to humans from animals, but avian influenza is not one of them.
“Therefore, consuming properly cooked chicken and chicken products during the outbreak is perfectly safe,” said Anelich.
Bird flu is a growing concern
Avian influenza is the biggest poultry health concern at the moment.
According to the South African Poultry Association, 3.8 million poultry and other commercially reared birds have been lost to bird flu outbreaks of the H5N1 strain in 93 locations across the country since March 2021.
Experts predict that bird flu may be the major factor affecting South Africa’s poultry imports this year and are calling for anti-dumping duties to be imposed to combat what the industry refers to as unfair trade.
There is also growing calls for a vaccine to be developed for the current bird flu strain. However, experts say the local industry could wait between two and five years before a vaccine becomes a reality in South Africa.
This is given how long the product approval and registration process normally takes.
According to Dr Mpho Maja, director of animal health at the DALRRD, a detailed vaccination protocol, including tracing and the controlled use of the vaccine, a surveillance protocol for vaccinated flocks and an eventual exit strategy must be in place before HPAI vaccination can commence in South Africa.
Strict biosecurity measures
For now, government and role players are calling on farmers to adhere to stringent biosecurity measures.
“We strongly encourage all poultry farmers including those with birds kept as a hobby or for zoo purposes, to adhere to strict biosecurity measures to prevent the introduction of HPAI,” Ngcobo advised.
Farmers and individuals are also urged to report any suspected outbreak to the responsible private or state veterinarian.
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