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A bird flu outbreak in Brazil could have dire consequences for food security in SA

A bird flu outbreak in Brazil could have dire consequences for food security in SA
Chickens are prepared for slaughter in Varzea Paulista near Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo: Marcos Issa / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There is a serious threat of a bird flu outbreak in Brazil, and it could have a devastating impact on South African supply chains.

A bird flu outbreak in Brazil could heap pressure on the South African poultry market, a leading meat importer has warned, saying that it is only a matter of time before the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) A(H5N1) virus becomes debilitating for the world’s second-largest poultry producing country.  

South Africa is heavily reliant on chicken imports from Brazil to satisfy local demand, and a bird flu outbreak there would pose a significant risk to SA’s food security, given the country’s dependence on chicken as an affordable protein. 

The SA Revenue Service and SA Poultry Association reported that SA imported 373,049 tonnes of poultry in 2022. In December 2022, SA’s poultry imports from Brazil totalled 25,840 tonnes (about 81.9%). 

The United States, the world’s biggest poultry producer, only had about 8.7% of import market share in SA; Argentina was our third-biggest exporter, at 8%; and almost no poultry was exported from Europe, which sold less than 210,000kg of poultry to SA. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to 2016, when the EU — one of our most significant export sources — exported 32,148 tonnes of poultry to SA (as per Smalltalkdaily Research’s poultry sector update for December 2022). 

Countries affected by bird flu are banned from exporting poultry.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says avian influenza A(H5N1) viruses have been detected in domestic and farmed poultry, wild birds and sea mammals.

In humans, avian influenza infection — though rare — can cause severe disease. Globally, since 2003, 873 human infections from A(H5N1) viruses, including 458 deaths, have been reported to the WHO. 

Fred Hume of Hume International, a meat wholesaler in Gqeberha, has called on South Africa to urgently institute a heat treatment protocol for mechanically deboned meat (MDM), in case there is a bird flu outbreak in Brazil. The heat treatment protocol is already in place for imported pork. 

MDM is already subjected to heat treatment to reduce the risk of microbial contamination and improve its safety for consumption, Hume said. The process involves pre-cooking meat at a high temperature. While bird flu typically does not affect the safety of poultry for human consumption, the heat treatment protocol could not only safeguard MDM supply chains but also set consumers’ minds at ease.

‘Brace for impact’

“Without this, South Africans should brace for impact, as the serious threat of an outbreak in Brazil could have a devastating impact on local supply chains, significantly driving up prices or even causing shortages,” he said.

Citing the latest data from the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, which reported in its March 2023 Household Affordability Index that frozen chicken portions saw an average price increase of 9% relative to the same period last year, Hume said chicken feet, gizzards and livers went up in price by 11%, 10% and 5%, respectively, over the same period. 

“This is in addition to the meteoric price increases of other important foods such as cooking oil at 16%, samp at 24%, maize meal at 26%, and potatoes at 52%, to name but a few,” he said, warning that a sharp increase in prices from chicken suppliers, or a shortage of supply would have a devastating effect on the SA economy and lead to increased food scarcity. 

“Usually, local producers can offset import food shortages and slow runaway prices with local supply, but South Africa simply does not produce enough poultry to meet local demand and be price competitive. Additionally, the local industry is facing enormous cost pressures as a result of power, water, and infrastructure challenges.”

Hume has called for the government to intervene before it is too late: “Beyond implementing effective heat treatment protocols, we are appealing to [the] government to enact a similar policy with regards to Brazil as it does with [the US], and only ban imports from individual states impacted by bird flu, as opposed to a blanket countrywide ban.”

He said once a country has been declared bird flu-free, the agriculture department must be proactive by reinstating import permits for that particular country because in some cases, countries were banned for years after they had been declared bird flu-free.

Wild card

Bird flu has been described as a wild card for the global poultry trade as it poses an ongoing threat. Over the past year, bird flu has spread in North America, Asia, Europe and most countries in South America, except for Brazil, Paraguay, Guyana and Suriname. 

The outbreak has killed more than 200 million birds, causing the price of poultry and eggs to rocket. 

The US has destroyed almost 60 million of its farmed and backyard chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks, and thousands of wild birds too. Forty-seven US states have been affected by the outbreak, according to the latest stats from the Centers for Disease Control

As it cut swathes through Latin America’s farms and wildlife, it has come closer than ever to Brazil’s southern states, which account for more than 60% of the country’s poultry production, according to Rabobank’s poultry quarterly report. 

Brazil saw demand spiking last year as it exported 4.8 million tonnes of poultry, partly due to the impact of bird flu in other countries. Poultry World magazine reports that Brazil increased poultry exports by 10.6% in volume and 24.5% in revenues during the first two months of 2023, while its neighbours reported bird flu outbreaks.

Data from the Brazilian Association of Animal Protein indicate that the country exported about 800,100 tonnes of poultry between January and February, worth $1.59-billion. During the same period last year, Brazil shipped 723,700 tonnes worth $1.28-billion.

Poultry World data indicate that the main destination of Brazilian exports is China, which imported 111,700 tonnes in the first two months of 2023, 3.2% higher in volume than in the same period of 2022 (90,600 tonnes).

Saudi Arabia has already imported 62,400 tonnes this year (+71.9%), followed by South Africa with 61,700 tonnes (+9.6%), the United Arab Emirates with 61,200 tonnes (-28.5%), Japan with 60,700 tonnes (+10%) and the European Union with 40,100 tonnes (+15.8%).

Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia have all had bird flu outbreaks, hitting poultry and wildlife including sea mammals. In March 2023, Peru reported that it had lost 3,500 South American sea lions since November 2022 to the highly virulent strain. 

HPAI is the deadliest form of bird flu.

Some countries, including China, already vaccinate against bird flu. Reuters reports that as part of a European programme, the Netherlands has been testing bird flu vaccines for egg-laying hens, which has proven to be effective, while France is carrying out tests on ducks, Italy on turkeys and Hungary on Pekin ducks. 

H5N1 viruses have been detected in wild birds, poultry and sea mammals in 16 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the US, Canada, and most of the rest of the world. DM/BM


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