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South Africa culls millions of chickens in an effort to contain bird flu outbreaks

Chickens on a chicken farm in Lichtenburg, South Africa, Thursday, March 23, 2023.
Denis Farrell
Chickens on a chicken farm in Lichtenburg, South Africa, Thursday, March 23, 2023.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South Africa has culled about 7.5 million chickens in an effort to contain dozens of outbreaks of two separate strains of avian influenza that threaten to create a shortage of eggs and poultry for consumers, the government and national poultry association said Tuesday.

At least 205,000 chickens have died from bird flu in at least 60 separate outbreaks across the country, with more than half of those outbreaks in Gauteng province, which includes the country's biggest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria.

Some grocery stores in Johannesburg were limiting the number of eggs customers were allowed to buy this week — in some cases to one carton of six eggs — and the government acknowledged there were "supply constraints."

The government announced approximately 2.5 million chickens bred for their meat had been culled. The South African Poultry Association said another 5 million egg-laying chickens had been culled. The 7.5 million birds represented about 20-30% of South Africa's total chicken stock, South African Poultry Association general manager Izaak Breitenbach said.

The government was moving to fast-track new import permits for companies to bring in eggs from other countries "to ensure sufficient supplies for consumers," Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza said. Her ministry is also considering embarking on a vaccination program to halt the bird flu outbreaks and said the number of farms with cases was increasing.

Neighboring Namibia has banned chicken meat and egg imports from South Africa.

The outbreaks are hitting an industry already struggling due to an electricity crisis. Breitenbach said South Africa has had three major bird flu outbreaks in recent years, and the latest ones were "by far the worst," already costing the industry losses of at least $25 million.

Vaccines would need to be imported and hopefully be ready to use in two to six months, he said.

Wilhelm Mare, chairman of the poultry group in the South African Veterinary Association, said as many as 8.5 million egg-laying chickens could be affected and more than 10 million birds overall.

"It tells me we're going to have problems with this situation for quite a while," Mare said, calling it "catastrophic" for the industry.

The United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month that bird flu outbreaks were on the rise globally, with more than 21,000 outbreaks across the world between 2013 and 2022. Bird flu only rarely infects humans.

Eggs are an important and affordable source of protein in South Africa, but prices have risen steadily this year and the shortages caused by bird flu were expected to push prices up again and add to high food inflation for South Africans.

The chicken industry in South Africa has already been hit hard this year by power shortages, which have resulted in planned regular electricity blackouts to save energy, but badly impacting businesses.

South African farmers said in January they had been forced to cull nearly 10 million young chicks, as Africa's most advanced economy experienced record blackouts at the start of the year, causing production to slow dramatically and leading to overcrowding on chicken farms.

The poultry industry has also lobbied the South African government to impose permanent duties on countries like Brazil, Denmark, Poland, Spain, and the United States for what the industry refers to as the "dumping" of cheap chicken products in South Africa, threatening local businesses.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]