Chicken Industry

The high toll of bird flu

South African poultry producers have had to cull more than 13 million chickens since 2017 to combat outbreaks of avian influenza (bird flu).

The seven-year toll was revealed by the SA Poultry Association’s Izaak Breitenbach in an interview with SAFM.

Illustrating the seriousness of the current bird flu outbreak, he said that 2.5 million chickens had been culled in 2017, and a further 3 million in 2021. The total so far for 2023 was 7.5 million birds culled.

Egg producers have been worst hit, and the 5 million birds culled this year represent 20% of the country’s commercial layer flock. Broiler breeders have lost 2.5 million birds, some 30% of the national broiler breeder population.

“There’s no insurance for this,” he said when asked about the financial cost to poultry producers. “It’s such a high risk that they can’t get insurance.”

Large-scale commercial broiler producers suffered huge losses, but could survive. However, in the egg industry there were more independent producers, and when bird flu hit the culls wiped out their entire flock.

What Breitenbach tactfully didn’t say, given the current negotiations with the government on combating the bird flu outbreak, is that there has been no government compensation for the 13 million chickens they have been ordered to cull. This is unlike other countries, where producers are compensated for the birds lost, and for the clean up and disposal costs.

The issue is currently the subject of a court case brought against the government by Astral Foods, the country’s largest chicken producer.

Astral has also pointed out that culling compensation is a bird flu containment measure. Farmers who know they will be compensated will report outbreaks. On the other hand, farmers who face losing their entire flocks, without compensation, if they report one dead bird have a huge incentive to keep quiet. That, in turn, enables the spread of the disease.