Alarm bells are ringing in South Africa as Brazil, the country’s primary source of imported chicken, reports two cases of avian influenza in wild birds. Experts are urging the government to take immediate proactive measures to avoid a looming crisis.
According to guidelines from the World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH), poultry exports from Brazil will not be banned unless the virus spreads to commercial flocks. However, due to the highly contagious nature of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which has caused the worst global outbreak of bird flu on record, South Africa must prepare for the worst-case scenario, warns Fred Hume, managing director of Hume International.
“If imports from Brazil are banned, there would be an immediate and potentially crippling impact on the local market which would cost thousands of jobs, cause dramatic increases in prices, and result in supply shortages,” emphasises Hume.
Hume further underscores the significance of Brazilian chicken to South Africa’s local supplies. “It’s not only prudent but necessary to consider the dire consequences that would unfold should the outbreak impact chicken imports from Brazil. Local poultry producers simply cannot satisfy local demand, and South Africa is heavily reliant on Brazil to fill the void in supply.”
The National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) highlights that in 2022, Brazil accounted for up to 75% of South Africa’s imported chicken. This dependence on Brazilian imports is crucial, especially given the increased demand for affordable animal protein, particularly among financially vulnerable households.
The situation back home
This role has become even more critical as South Africa experiences intensified load shedding, leading to poultry shortages and rising chicken and meat prices. According to the latest Standard Bank Livestock Report, chicken prices have increased by 11% year-on-year, surpassing the overall consumer price index.
Without a credible replacement partner approved by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, the potential halt of Brazilian imports could have disastrous consequences.
“Brazilian chicken is vital to local supply chains, and we do not have a credible replacement partner that has been approved by [the department]. The government urgently needs to consider possible measures to prevent the potential devastation that would follow should Brazilian imports be halted,” adds Hume.
For instance, the broiler industry’s food processing sector alone supports over 31 000 jobs. A shortage of mechanically deboned poultry meat, a key ingredient in sausages, viennas, polonies, and pet food, could lead to local production cutbacks and place these jobs at risk.
Suspend new import duties
Moreover, production cuts could result in shortages of affordable processed meat products, while disruptions in frozen chicken supplies would lead to meteoric price increases. Both outcomes would threaten the food security of poor and low-income families who depend on chicken for protein.
To mitigate the impact of a potential ban on Brazilian chicken, the government should extend the suspension of new import duties on frozen chicken, believes Hume. These duties, including substantial tariffs on imports from Ireland, Poland, Spain, and Denmark, were temporarily suspended last year due to soaring food prices but are soon due to be reinstated, potentially exacerbating supply pressures and food inflation.
Another measure the government could explore is adjusting import policies to allow for regionalisation in the case of bird flu outbreaks in countries like Brazil and Argentina. Similar to its trade policy with the United States, this approach would limit poultry bans to specific provinces affected by bird flu instead of imposing a blanket ban on the entire country.
Furthermore, implementing additional heat treatment protocols for mechanically deboned poultry meat from countries experiencing bird flu outbreaks could help ensure a steady supply of this crucial ingredient for meat manufacturers. Although it already undergoes heat treatments before shipping, additional treatments would provide consumers with peace of mind and maintain a stable supply.
Plotting the way forward
In the face of this potential crisis, the government and other role players must urgently convene to discuss the way forward.
“The government, industry representatives, and businesses urgently need to convene and discuss the way forward in case of an emergency. We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand – the government needs to act to reassure consumers and provide businesses with certainty,” concludes Hume.
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