Bird flu, vaccination and industry transformation
This will be my last letter to you as I’ll be stepping down as CEO in August after 11 memorable years of service. Having put so much of my energy into SAPA, I think I’ll soon find that there are many holes in my life. I look forward to the opportunity to formally take my leave of you all sometime in the next few months, and the chance to build up my energy stores for my next adventure in the world of work. For those of you who’d like to stay in touch, Louisa will have my contact details available. Dr Charlotte Nkuna will act as CEO until such time as a full recruitment process has been completed.
There has been much talk about vaccination as a means to manage the current HPAI outbreak, which continues to spread - at the time of writing this - quite slowly. The risk of further infections will remain high until summer temperatures start to have an effect. This means all producers should take additional precautions to try to keep the disease out. In the absence of definitive analyses for the disease transfer mechanisms, we aren’t yet able to give you specific advice. In due course we’ll be able to do this, so in the interim all we can suggest are the sort of general biosecurity principles that we like to believe you were applying anyway.
Back to the subject of vaccination. It’s likely that HPAI will become a more frequent presence in many non-asian source countries, and that some of these countries rely quite heavily on trade, whether in breeding
material, meat and eggs, or processed products. If the disease is to become more seasonally common - or resident - as it seems to be doing in Europe, it might be that a stamping out policy is no longer appropriate. Clearly such a policy is only suitable if it can remove the disease from the population for a substantial period of time. Mass depopulation each winter or, even worse all through the year, is counterproductive in my view.
There’s already some misunderstanding on OIE standards relating to trade restrictions in the presence of AI. For example, South Africa doesn’t apply trade restrictions in the presence of LPAI when the OIE standards, in their current form, don’t require this interpretation. No doubt if vaccination was permitted, then trade barriers would worsen. We already export in excess of R 1,5 billion per annum, and it’s a key part of the government-led task team work on the poultry industry that we become a significant exporter of poultry products. If we provide a mere 5% of global poultry meat exports, the local industry would be South Africa’s single largest agricultural exporter in Rand terms. We should be cautious to destroy what already exists and what government is working on to assist us to do in the future.
On a global basis, the major poultry exporters are very concerned that any approval of vaccination will disrupt the market severely and perhaps in long-term ways as well. That’s why any change to a vaccination-based AI strategy needs a lot of basic and applied research coupled with some considered negotiation at the OIE before the approach is likely to win the support of key producer countries. I cannot see why we should be an outlier country - or want to be an outlier country.
Vaccination can serve three basic purposes: prevention, control and management. For all three of these, there are two overarching requirements, namely technical efficacy (differs accordance to purpose), and practicality of application. There is no vaccine currently available which can stop the shedding of virus and neither is there any vaccine available suitable for mass vaccination of all birds. It isn’t practical to repeatedly inject the national flock. If virus continues to be shed, then prevention of the spread of the disease isn’t possible with vaccination although it is possible that prevention of morbidity and/or mortality could occur.
As it cannot be said that the veterinary authorities have lost control of the disease in South Africa one of the key triggers for the use of vaccination does not exist. Rather it suggests that biosecurity at the larger farms is not as good as producers believe it to be, need it to be and want it to be. Our national experience with H6 and ND shows that producers are not able to use vaccination as a tool to prevent and eliminate a disease - and not
even to fully control a disease. The fact that this strain has a seeming preference for long-lived birds, most of which are commercial laying hens or pullets and mostly in multi-age sites, suggests that any vaccination strategy cannot be limited to broiler breeders alone. The commercial laying industry is generally believed to have different, and lower, standards of biosecurity than the broiler breeding industry so all long lived birds, including pullets, would have to be vaccinated for a vaccination strategy to possibly work. You can’t even constrain this action to high risk areas as per the assessment of risk areas done by Professor Cummings of the University of Cape Town since there is a lot of bird movement around the country from the various broiler and layer pullet suppliers. Then you have the spent hen industry, which would mean that such birds would have to have a strong vaccine response before they can be moved around and sold. If you add up the various birds that fall into these categories, you’re looking at perhaps up to 100 million birds a year (treating spent hens as a class of birds for vaccination) if we vaccinate. That’s a major undertaking.
The other key trigger to use vaccination would be if the disease was zoonotic. This strain is not zoonotic. On the other hand, businesses will fail and livelihoods will suffer if we don’t manage to contain the virus.
It’s ironic that the broiler industry has been suffering from the ravages of imports from the EU for the last few years - and it’s because of the massive outbreaks in the EU that the migrating wild birds brought us this little gift. It seems as if Europe is giving us a very hard time at present. Clearly the Europeans have suffered more than we have so far, and they continue to experience outbreaks in their summer, which isn’t generally expected. This means the likelihood of them having another bad winter - and the wild birds bringing us more gifts from afar - is rather likely.
I can’t yet see that it’s in either the short or long term interest of the industries to vaccinate. Rather, we should spend some time and money to do forward and backward tracing in order to give better advice on how to stop→
introduction of the disease. We should also be monitoring all the water bodies in the country to better map the risk profile of the disease.
On a more positive note, a number of our neighbouring countries have lifted their export bans after verifying that the compartments that were supplying them remain free of the disease.
A further issue that we’re dealing with at present is the question of compensation. DAFF, for perfectly sensible reasons, didn’t budget for compensation payments to the poultry industry in this budget cycle. That means they don’t have the money to pay compensation and have been asking Treasury for access to some emergency funds.
That is but one of the problems. The equally important question is what model of compensation is to be used? Producers need to find it sensible to report outbreaks, not to hide them. This requires that compensation deals with more than simply the bird value, but also has to cover the consequential costs of an outbreak. SAPA is working closely with DAFF to try to find an amicable solution. DAFF have advised that they’ll be putting in a request for compensation to be added to their budget for next year. Hopefully we won’t need to access the budget, although my bones tell me otherwise.
SAPA organisational matters
Astral Foods confirmed their resignation from SAPA as at end July. This creates further uncertainty within the organisation as we battle to find the funding we need to perform the work that members expect of us. The two subsidiary bodies that make up SAPA - namely the Egg Organisation and the Broiler Organisation - have recently suffered from reduced membership, both within the smaller member and larger member categories. While we remain the largest voice of the local poultry industry, we can no longer claim to represent the majority of all producers as members. Rather, we represent the majority of producers on selected issues alone, when such producers choose to align themselves with the views of SAPA. Membership fees at SAPA are proportional to size, meaning the larger producers carry a greater share of the costs.
We thought we had embarked on a journey of transformation that would allow us to be a shining light within the agricultural sector, bringing small producers - most of whom are Historically Disadvantaged Individuals directly into the value chain, rather than keeping them producing and organised in parallel to the existing large producers, not all of whom are white. The current large producers seem to be finding it difficult to adapt their business models, to a greater or lesser degree, to include new entrants who are generally quite small into their businesses. This isn’t to say that there haven’t been some success stories the two sub-sectors can be proud of; rather, it means that a fundamental shift in business model approach has been hard to achieve. It should also be noted that our national policy in agriculture is at odds with the global trend of having fewer and larger producers supplying the majority of the world’s food.
It is a matter of debate as to what can be changed within the industry, although there’s an awareness that changing the type, scale and sources of production and opening up the marketing channels are avenues worth exploring. We currently consider that it makes better sense for reasons of capital allocation, food safety and quality control to
have fewer larger abattoirs, processing plants and egg grading and packaging plants than to have further small plants established.
We feel that government has a strong role to play in assisting the two sub-sectors of the industry to face up to the practical realities that we face as a country and as the poultry industry in its totality. Together we can chart our future path. I do hope a solution can be found. For a range of reasons, meetings of the various committees are currently being postponed as SAPA tries, once again, to ground itself.
SAPA organised two producer sessions to propose risk based alternatives to the current assignee model. It’s become clear that the frequency of visits proposed is aligned to the business model that the assignee wants to apply. This is not the ideal way to find the least cost option. On the other hand, we can’t simply say we want fewer visits without good reason. We’re in the process of trying to find such good reason and will then test that model with producers before taking it to DAFF and the assignee for their review. The broiler producer session did take place, but the egg producer session had to be cancelled due to the poor confirmation of attendance.
Our July task team meeting had to be cancelled due to the non-availability of some the key parties. We’ll meet again in early August to continue the work of the team. A water efficiency meeting was held in July to look at ways various state institutions could assist us to reduce our water use profile, especially in the abattoir environment. As a water-stressed country, any new work that’ll allow us to reuse water - or simply use less water - is to be lauded. With the price of water relatively low, it’s easy not to think much about your water usage patterns. Hopefully the task team can be of assistance.
The EPA safeguard decision by ITAC will have been sent to Minister Davies by the time you read this letter. We made oral representations to ITAC in early August, hopefully explaining our interpretations in a clear and convincing manner. The process from now on is fairly confidential, so we’ll likely not know what the progress is before we read the Minister’s decision in the Government Gazette. Minister Davies will have to discuss his intentions with the EU through a formal EPA structure, and I’m sure there’ll be some hard bargaining behind closed doors. It looks as if a decision can be expected in September.
BFAP presented their annual baseline in early August. I find their work to be inspiring, as this is all home-grown talent providing a very necessary scenario planning tool for agriculture in South Africa. I think all readers will find something in their reports to be of use.
Regards for the last time and a very heartfelt goodbye, Kevin Lovell.¡