Business Maverick

IT’S NO YOLK

SA retailers warn of looming egg shortages linked to nationwide avian flu outbreak

SA retailers warn of looming egg shortages linked to nationwide avian flu outbreak
(Photo: Unsplash / Erol Ahmed)

Retail outlets, including Spar, Pick n Pay and Woolworths, have a shortage of eggs or have flagged a looming supply shortage linked to a nationwide outbreak of avian flu. It looks like consumers are going to have to shell out more for this key food product.

If you want some eggs in your pantry, you better get cracking.  

Over the weekend, Daily Maverick correspondents noticed signs in a number of Spar outlets in Johannesburg apologising to customers for a shortage of eggs because of an outbreak of bird flu. 

“Dear valued Spar customer … Due to the recent outbreak of Avian Influenza across the country, we are experiencing severe shortages on the supply of eggs from our major suppliers,” read one sign at a Spar in the Joburg suburb of Northcliff.  

“Spar is doing everything in its power to keep our shelves full. Please be patient with us as we know that this is not an ideal situation.” 

The sign was posted on shelves that were mostly bare, with only a few cartons of eggs left. Sort of like the case with toilet paper in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and this is also directly related to a disease outbreak.  

Spar did not respond over the weekend to requests for comment, but the issue goes beyond one retailer.  

While the issue seems to be mostly confined for now to Gauteng, Woolworths outlets in Cape Town and Johannesburg have the following sign on their egg shelves: 

“We’re doing everything possible to protect our chickens. Under veterinary advice, our free-range chickens, including the hens that lay our eggs, are temporarily being kept indoors to protect them from Avian Flu. We remain committed to offering you free-range choices, and the birds will be allowed to return outdoors as soon as it is safe.” 

Signs at stores including Woolworths, Superspar and Kwikspar addressing the egg shortage due to the outbreak of avian flu. (Photos: Ed Stoddard)

The manager of a Spar in the northern Johannesburg suburbs said it was simply impossible at the moment to source free-range eggs.  

“I’m speaking to farmers and trying to get some,” the manager said. His store also had a sign apologising for the shortage of eggs.  

A supervisor at a Pick n Pay in the same neighbourhood, whose egg selection also seemed much smaller than usual, said that sourcing eggs had been a problem for the last week.  

And a foreign-based scholar who was in Johannesburg for research told this correspondent that he was astonished on Saturday morning when he ordered eggs at the Rosebank hotel he was staying in and was told that the kitchen had run out. 

The avian flu outbreaks — specifically the HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza) strain — are scrambling the supply networks.  

“The first part of the year will be remembered for high levels of load shedding, which cost the industry millions per month, very high feed costs and unfortunately HPAI outbreaks. Producers have been struggling and if one reads the Sapa [South African Poultry Association] annual reports presented during June’s AVI Africa conference, it is clear that many small commercial farmers (especially in the layer industry) have stopped production,” Adel van der Merwe, vice-chair of Sapa, said in the association’s latest monthly Poultry Bulletin. (Italics added). 

One small shopkeeper in Johannesburg told Daily Maverick that his small-scale supplier of free-range eggs was fearful that they would have to shutter their business because of the problem.  

Sapa had not responded to our requests for comment on the weekend, but there is clearly an unfolding poultry problem of note.  

“A new wave of H5 avian influenza introductions seems to have started in March 2023. Fifteen outbreaks were reported to Woah [World Organisation for Animal Health] as part of the start of this new HPAI H5 event,” the Department of Agriculture said in May.  

Woah’s latest global update on the situation, covering the period from 14 July to 24 August, notes the following: 

“During the period covered by this report, a total of 38 new outbreaks in poultry were reported by eight countries and territories (Chinese Taipei, Ecuador, Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom and United States of America.”  

This state of affairs raises a host of concerns. Small-scale producers seem to be in trouble, but the bigger producers will also face a crunch. And consumers look set to shell out more for eggs. 

South African consumer inflation slowed to a two-year low of 4.7% on an annual basis in July, but Statistics South Africa noted that the price increase of eggs, milk and cheese accelerated to 14.4% from 14.1% in June. The egg component for that basket will almost certainly see faster rates of inflation in the months to come.  

The 100 folds in a French chef’s hat may represent the 100 ways to cook an egg, but the matter goes far beyond scrambled, fried or poached. Cakes, cookies, koeksisters and milk tart come to mind, and eggs are used for thickening, glazing and binding in a range of recipes and foodstuff.  

Could there be a looming shortage of milk tart and koeksisters? Or Portuguese custard tarts?  

Then there’s the restaurant business, including the fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Spur, Wimpy and Mugg & Bean. You can’t make an Egg McMuffin without eggs.  

Stay tuned folks, this issue is bound to raise a flap among consumers and businesses. DM 

Additional reporting by Jillian Green. 

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