Bird flu creeps inland, with virus mutation reported in Mpumalanga

The local poultry industry is on edge after the latest ‘H7’ highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak in Mpumalanga was confirmed to have mutated from a bird flu strain unique to South Africa.

The province bordering Mozambique reported two avian influenza outbreaks in June that killed 9 500 birds.

Another two outbreaks were reported in the Western Cape earlier this year.

Read: SA reports two outbreaks of H7 bird flu in poultry

“The disease [in Mpumalanga] broke out at a smallholder farm and then it spread to a commercial farm,” Izaak Breitenbach of the South African Poultry Association (Sapa) told Moneyweb this week.

It is not yet clear from which strain the H7 virus mutated and whether it is more dangerous than the H5 strain most common around the world. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development told Moneyweb it is investigating the virus’s makeup.

“Although both the currently present H7 and H5 strains are highly pathogenic avian influenza [HPAI] strains, they are two distinctly different viruses,” departmental spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said.

“It is not currently possible to confirm whether the H7 strain is more threatening or deadly as we are at the beginning of the HPAI H7 outbreak.”

He added: “Full genome sequencing of the HPAI H7 strain is still in progress. Once completed, information on how it relates to other strains in South Africa and globally will be available.

“It is, however, safe to say that influenza viruses mutate, and all current viruses mutated from somewhere.”

Read: Cash-strapped consumers place pressure on food producers

Sapa says it does not expect another mutation of the virus to occur any time soon, but should one be reported, Breitenbach says farmers will be expected to follow the prescribed protocol. This includes the culling of all birds and the crushing of all eggs produced within a three-kilometre radius of the farm where the virus was first detected.

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More incidents

The department said until now, only the H5 strain has been detected in migrating wild birds in the country and the H7 strain is yet to be discovered among these flocks.

However, according to Breitenbach, the industry is on high alert for more cases encroaching inland as wild birds in some provinces have tested positive for the disease.

“Chicken [production] is concentrated in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and greater Gauteng … Now we have picked up that the wild birds in these three provinces are positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza and therefore there is a risk always that it can go from wild birds to chicken,” he said.

“So I am concerned, if we are looking ahead, that because the wild birds are positive we are under pressure [as this] might cause more incidents of the disease and we’re in winter and it is a disease that is more prominent in winter.”

Price shocks

So far the outbreaks have affected the price of eggs and not poultry meat as all of this year’s incidents have affected layer farms. Should the outbreak spread further, consumers could find themselves forking out even more for a tray of eggs.

Breitenbach confirmed that, to date, farmers in the country have had to cull about 1.8 million layer birds because of the bird flu outbreak, placing further production pressure on an already hard-pressed industry.

The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group’s June Household Affordability Index showed that a tray of 60 eggs cost at least 1% less between May 2023 and June 2023, but remained 7% higher than a year ago at R128.35.

Agoa uncertainty

The struggling poultry sector will face even greater pressure should the United States decide to expel South Africa from the America Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) preferential trade programme that sees countries in the sub-Saharan Africa region exporting products tariff-free to the US.

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This is according to food importer Hume International, which believes South Africa’s exclusion will see “meteoric rises in local chicken prices”.

“The effect of South Africa’s expulsion from Agoa on local poultry prices would be immense, and the situation is far more dire than many realise,” Hume International’s logistics and operations director Roy Thomas said.

“Furthermore, if America pulls us from the Agoa agreement, imports from our second largest poultry importer may also become too expensive for local businesses and consumers to bear.”

Read: The big Agoa debate

Hume estimates that chicken price increases as a direct result of the expulsion could end up outpacing many consumers’ wages as the Agoa agreement exempts South Africa from paying a R9.40 anti-dumping duty for every kilogram of chicken imported from America.

“Imports generally serve as a counterweight to local prices by introducing competition, which ensures all market participants maintain fair prices while still making a profit,” Thomas said.

“The trouble with shortfalls in import supplies is that the local market may then lose its ability to regulate the price of locally produced chicken against that of international producers, potentially seeing local producers significantly boost their prices.

“Delays in approvals for suppliers from countries where there was bird flu [and] unreasonable anti-dumping duties placed on key trading partners, combined with an exit from Agoa, could then result in some of the worst chicken price inflation experienced in South Africa.”

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