CAIRO: A leading poultry producer says that it has not sold a single baby chick since the outbreak of avian flu in the country 11 days ago.
Wadi Holdings breeds and sells day-old chicks to farmers. It also sells chicken feed and poultry-related products make up the majority of its revenues. The company controls 45 percent of the market for layer chicks, which are raised to produce table eggs, and 15 percent of the market for broiler chicks, which are raised for slaughter and consumption.
Wadi President Musa Freiji told The Daily Star Egypt that his company has not sold either type of chick since the government announced the first cases of bird flu last week. Since our customers are farmers, and since farmers have been badly affected, we have consequently been affected as well, says Freiji.
Chicken and egg consumption declined substantially after the virus spread to Turkey last October due to concerns of its imminent arrival in Egypt. The farmers that produce such products have been selling them either at a loss or have been forced to reduce their overall production, because they cannot sustain that loss for a long time, explains Freiji.
On Sept. 15, Freiji wrote a letter to the Minister of Agriculture, who at the time was Ahmed El-Leithy and has since been replaced by Amin Abaza, recommending the formation of a committee of experts that would visit several countries to research various methods of combating the disease and formulate a comprehensive plan to deal with the virus. I had mentioned that this disease has been moving from one country to another and we have got to have a preparedness plan as a country, says Frieji.
After five months of inaction from the government, Frieji wrote another letter to the Prime Minister on Feb. 13, days before the official announcement of the first cases of the virus. Having not seen the government preparing any plan, whether a contingency plan or a preparedness plan, I thought I should interfere immediately, says Frieji.
The letter included a six-page contingency plan with specific procedures for containing the virus, a media awareness strategy and a detailed compensation scheme for farmers. This eventually was a valuable document because the disease came about and everybody wanted solutions, says Frieji.
However, the failure to formulate a contingency plan prior to the arrival of the virus resulted in delayed action, with ministers scrambling from meeting to meeting trying to come to a decision on how to proceed. We re always fighting fire and handling crises rather than preparing ourselves, with a proper plan, for how to handle a situation if it comes about, Frieji explains.
Abaza held a meeting with poultry producers on Tuesday to discuss prevention and containment measures. He was confused; he doesn t know what to do, says Frieji. He does not know what to suggest to the [government s avian flu] council. And what made the situation worse is that the poultry union members also had different opinions.
Much of the division amongst farmers relates to compensation. Some wanted a compensation scheme that goes beyond the scale, says Freiji. Some wanted to exaggerate the numbers and figures.
There are also differing opinions amongst experts concerning actions to contain the virus. The question of whether the virus should be regarded as a human or animal disease is central to the debate, and the consequent actions will determine the survival or destruction of the poultry industry in Egypt.
After the outbreak of the virus, the government formed a council headed by Minister of Health Hatem El-Gabaly and composed of numerous ministers, including Abaza, to address these issues.
“Because it s headed by the Minister of Health, Freiji explains, and because the Minister of Health was advised continuously by the World Health Organization, his attention was directed towards the human element, not the animal element. His concern was how to prevent this disease from infecting people; whether the industry is totally destroyed and the consequences of the measures they have taken on the poultry industry itself were not of importance to him.
The two alternative strategies are to stamp out the disease or to vaccinate livestock. Stamping out, which was previously done in Canada and Holland, involves the zoning of infected areas and the destruction of all poultry within the perimeter of the zone.
“It requires huge teams of people to make sure that the disease does not spread, to kill the chickens, to compensate farmers [and] to stop movement, says Freiji, adding that the government does not have the means to implement such a strategy and that the existence of rooftop farms makes stamping out difficult to implement.
In terms of vaccination, different vaccines are available for the various strains of the virus. The H5N1 strain is lethal to poultry and this is the strain that has spread to Egypt and other countries.
The H5N1 vaccine, however, makes direct differentiation between infected and vaccinated birds impossible. The only method of differentiation is to insert an uninfected, unvaccinated sample of birds into a flock and test the sample for the virus after a period of time. Freiji says that this method of testing is difficult to enforce and is prone to cheating by farmers.
Vaccines for alternative strains are also effective against the H5N1 strain of the virus. Such vaccines would allow birds to be tested directly for the H5N1 strain.
Until recently, the importation of avian flu vaccines for poultry was prohibited. According to Freiji, a committee headed by Giza Governor Fathi Saad that was charged with addressing the importation issue decided on Tuesday evening to only allow the import of the H5N1 vaccine.
“We were totally stunned, says Freiji, adding that the inability to differentiate between infected and vaccinated birds will cause the continued spread of the virus amongst livestock. We need to differentiate in order to depopulate, destroy [and] stamp-out.
The government s actions to combat bird flu will ultimately determine the fate of the poultry industry in Egypt. It needs to decide if the industry is essential to the country and must survive, or if the industry is dispensable and the nation s nutritional needs can be fulfilled without domestic poultry production.
“We need to know what the policy is, says Freiji, and as such we will work as an industry according to that policy.