Poultry sales fall as bird flu fears intensify

Companies involved in the UAE poultry sector are suffering amid consumer fears of bird flu

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By  Roger Field Published  December 16, 2005

Sales of chicken and poultry products in the UAE have dropped significantly owing to consumer fears over bid flu. The situation has become worse since an outbreak of the virus in KSA and Kuwait, and many retailers and producers are now blaming a lack of public awareness for the industry’s decline. Shabo Abdul, who heads the buying division for UAE supermarket chain, Emke, said a fall in sales has been particularly apparent in the last month. “There is a fall in all of our poultry business, chickens and eggs,” he told RNME. “Internal orders are dropping. After the news in the papers about strains in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, most of them [consumers] are trying to keep away from poultry.” Much of the drop in sales is attributable to ignorance of the virus, Abdul added. “There are misconceptions of bird flu. There are rumours in the market saying this may happen, or this may not happen. If you are cooking the food properly, there is no danger,” he said. The drop in sales is also affecting chicken and poultry products from countries with no recorded cases of the virus. For example, sales at Tyson Foods, a US importer of frozen chicken products, which has a base in Dubai, have dropped by up to 60%. “We’ve seen almost a halt in all our business,” said Zahi Chihab, director of sales for Tyson Foods in the UAE. Chihab agrees that a lack of awareness among consumers is a major problem, along with knee-jerk reactions by some governments. “It’s misinformed consumers really,” he said. “Consumers won’t buy chickens and governments are making blanket bans on all imports of chicken and products, which scientifically doesn’t have any value. I think the misconception is that you can get it from food. If it’s [chicken] cooked properly, there’s no way you can get the flu from eating it. “The other problem is that there’s a misconception that it’s a pandemic. It hasn’t actually reached a human form yet. You have to be in contact with an infected live chicken to get it.” Tyson Foods is already working on plans to help educate the public about bird flu, and is collaborating with organisations such as the USA Export Council. This is an approach that Emke’s Abdul is also keen to see more of, although he thinks many smaller companies lack the resources to influence consumers’ opinions. “An awareness campaign is very much necessary so that fear is wiped from our consumers’ minds,” he said. He would like to see some of the larger poultry producers join forces to tackle the problem by helping to educate consumers. “There is very little we can do from our side but I think a lot of the bigger poultry companies have to take the initiative,” he said. He added that an increase in the price of chicken owing to reduced international supplies could also have led to a drop in poultry sales. “Everyone is depending on a couple of markets for poultry — Brazil and Europe,” Abdul said. “Every two to three weeks, there is a price increase on poultry. Maybe due to that reason as well, consumers are a little hesitant about buying poultry.” But not all companies are experiencing a big drop in sales. Fawaz Masri, managing director of Federal Foods, which imports chickens from Brazil under the Sadia brand, said sales have been steady. “We have not really been affected by bird flu so far, for a couple of reasons,” Masri said. “One is that the source of our product is Brazil, which, so far, is away from this problem. “Brazil, as a country, has been very cautious to keep clear of these diseases because poultry business represents its number four industry. They have exercised a lot of measures in order to keep the country free from bird flu.” Masri added that Sadia, as one of Brazil’s leading poultry companies, has also made efforts to prevent any potential spread of bird flu. While it remains to be seen whether Federal Foods will see a fall in sales, Masri said his company is already working on a PR exercise to help educate the public about the virus. “By communicating with people and educating them on this issue, that will reduce the effect of a possible reduction of consumption,” he said. To this end, Federal Foods and Sadia are planning to make presentations to trade clients and consumers. “We already have a PR campaign that is going to be from ourselves and also from the Brazilian producers, to the press, trade and consumers, about the facts of the issue, to let people know that products coming into the UAE are disease free,” Masri said. “Literature will be circulated and speakers from health authorities will participate. That is at the level of the UAE itself. Brazil and its producers, being major exporters of this product, will also come up with their own [plans].”

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