Bird flu compensation a hot issue on Steenhuisen’s desk

Unlike other countries, the South African government has refused to compensate poultry farmers for the chickens they are ordered to cull to stop the spread of bird flu. That may be about to change.

high court ruling last week overturned the basis of the government’s argument since 2017 – that chickens infected or in contact with bird flu have no value. The Cape Town high court has ruled that a farmer’s R31 million claim must be reconsidered, on the basis that the chickens were previously healthy and had a market value.

The South African Poultry Association (SAPA) has welcomed the decision, pointing out that poultry farmers lost R10 billion in last year’s bird flu outbreak alone. The Department of Agriculture, against which the disputed claim was lodged, has yet to respond.

How the government reacts will be a big decision for new agriculture minister John Steenhuisen. One of the first issues will be whether or not the government believes there is any prospect of a successful appeal against the court decision.

If it is not taken on appeal, or if an appeal fails, then the government potentially faces huge claims from poultry farmers for losses suffered in cullings.

SAPA’s Izaak Breitenbach told Business Report that culling without compensation was not sustainable and resulted in chicken farmers having to raise prices.

“Farmers have lost over R10bn in 2023/24 due to culling infected flocks without compensation. This does not account for the replacement of lost stock, sterilising and sanitising the chicken houses or the additional feed and water cycle to grow the replacement stock ready for market,” he said.

The financial newspaper Business Day said the decision set a precedent for all disease control claims in the country.

Judge Cloete had ordered that the decision not to compensate be sent back to department officials for a fresh consideration, noting “nil” cannot be the finding, it said. She had ordered officials to consider compensation as if the animals were in a “healthy” state.

“This is how all compensation claims must be considered in SA. The judgment sets precedent all officials must follow in cases of disease control considerations,” the newspaper stated.

Now it’s over to Minister Steenhuisen for the next move.