The poultry master plan awaits a new master

One of the big post-election questions, for the poultry industry in particular, is who will succeed Ebrahim Patel as Minister of Trade, Industry and Competition.

Ministers Ebrahim Patel and Thoko Didiza have been the powers behind the poultry master plan, which has had limited success, and has taken decisions on chicken imports that do not accord with the master plan or promote the poultry industry’s future.

Now, just as the industry’s relations with Patel were improving, and some positive developments were expected, he has announced his retirement. A new minister must be chosen by the incoming government and the poultry master plan will get a new master.

It’s going to be an uphill task. The master plan is way behind schedule, and most of the successes that the government trumpets are due to the poultry industry implementing their part of the agreement. The government’s contribution has been sporadic and, unfortunately, inadequate.

The thrust of the master plan was to stabilise and then revive the poultry industry, which in 2019 was in crisis due to a flood of dumped chicken imports. The objectives were to curb imports and expand the industry though increased local demand and vigorous export promotion.

The industry invested R1.8 billion in expanded capacity, creating some 2 000 jobs in the process, but demand has not met that capacity. Chicken exports should have doubled or nearly trebled by now – instead they were lower in 2023 than in 2019 when the master plan was signed.

The good news is that chicken imports have dropped significantly. The bad news is that most of the decline is due to bird flu outbreaks in producer countries, and if the virus abates then dumped imports will rise again, particularly from the United States and Europe. It is only then that the effect of new anti-dumping duties on Brazil and European Union will be tested.

The job of the new government will be to revive the poultry master plan, and ensure that it does what the signatories had planned nearly five years ago. The ministers of trade and industry and of agriculture – the two government signatories – will need to devote lot of energy to increased production and domestic consumption of chicken, and to the export drive, where the government contribution has not met the master plan’s objectives.

Exports failure

The failure of the planned export drive is one of the poultry master plan’s most notable disappointments. Much of that failure can be laid at government’s door.

Concerted action will be needed from agriculture minister Thoko Didiza, or her successor if there is a portfolio change, if South Africa is to enjoy the bonanza of chicken exports that the master plan envisaged.

The plan lamented that exports were only 2% of chicken production and planned to address the potential for expansion and job creation “especially if we can develop substantial export market”.

It noted that, although South African chicken exports would enjoy duty-free access to the European Union, there had been no exports to the EU “largely because we have not developed the necessary systems to meet the sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) requirements of the European market”.

Simply put, South Africa must expand its state veterinary staff and facilities to provide the health certificates needed to enter the EU and other export markets. This has not yet happened, although negotiations with the EU are underway.

The master plan foresaw a rapid increase in chicken exports – more than doubling to between 3% and 5% of production by 2023, and doubling again to between 7% and 10% of production by 2028 “with a growing proportion thereafter”.

Again, this has not happened, mainly because there is still a chronic shortage of state veterinarians. The department of agriculture needs to up its game if the exports drive is to gain momentum. 

For the moment, the record speaks for itself. In 2019, when the master plan was signed, chicken exports totalled 50 229 tonnes. By the end of 2023, this was down to 46 789 tonnes.

Think of the jobs that could have been created across the chicken value chain had exports instead risen to nearly 200 000 tonnes annually by now, with 500 000 tonnes in view because of continued expansion into new and existing markets. 

It is a huge opportunity that has been lost, and fixing that problem must be a priority for the incoming government.

Still no bird flu vaccinations

Another big task for South Africa’s agriculture department will be to sort out bird flu vaccinations before a potential and devastating rise in outbreaks as winter approaches.

Bird flu outbreaks last year were the worst in the country’s history, with more than 10 million chickens lost to infections and culling. The poultry industry has warned that the country might face another disastrous year if a vaccination programme is not put in place.

The problems are twofold. Firstly, vaccines have been approved for the internationally prevalent H5 bird flu strain, but not yet for South Africa’s unique H7 strain which resulted in more than 80% of last year’s chicken deaths.

Secondly, the government has set such strict requirements that each individual poultry producer must meet that the industry fears few farmers will receive permits to vaccinate their flocks. The requirements relate both to the biosecurity measures that must be in place before vaccinations can be administered, and to a rigorous and expensive monitoring and testing programme that must be followed afterwards.

FairPlay had called on agriculture minister Thoko Didiza to intervene urgently to address the problem because the requirements “are too complicated and burdensome”.

“So far, there have been many applications to vaccinate, but no farm has been able to meet the strict biosecurity and monitoring protocols,” FairPlay said in a statement.

Vaccination was cheaper and more effective than culling as a bird flu control measure, particularly as the South African government – unlike other countries – refuses to compensate chicken farmers for the birds it orders them to cull.

“Implementing a vaccination programme and compensating farmers for culling is critical to the sustainability of the industry, and the protection of South African consumers,” FairPlay said.

“We urgently call on Minister Didiza to improve the biosecurity and monitoring protocols, and finalise the government’s vaccination programme.”