Chickens at the Shiva Poultry Depot in Debe

Yesterday’s closure of food outlets and restaurants following the tightening of COVID-19 measures by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, can result in the country’s poultry industry losing $25 million in chicken sales over the next four weeks.

The unexpected move by Rowley to shut down food establishments until April 30 as part of the Stay-at-Home measures now has chicken processors, farmers and T&T Poultry Association president Robin Phillips running around like headless chickens to locate private cold storage facilities to store approximately one million processed chickens that are expected to flood the market by month-end.

Phillips admitted yesterday that Monday’s announcement caught them off guard and he was unsure when fast food outlets like KFC, Royal Castle, Japs Fried Chicken and Church’s Chicken—their largest purchasers—would resume business with no idea of when the COVID-19 measures would end.

Every week, he said, members produce and sell 800,000 broilers. One-third of the 800,000 birds (250,000) go to the foodservice sector, mainly restaurants and food outlets. The remaining birds are bought by supermarkets and pluck shops.

“As of now, we have no market for 250,000 broilers following the closure of these food establishments,” Phillips said.

For this month, he said the poultry industry will now have no buyers for one million chickens that will be available. Collectively, Phillips said the weight of these chickens was four million pounds valued at $25 million.

Phillips said the association lacked cold storage facilities to accommodate the volume of chickens they will be saddled with.

“We were totally caught off guard…we were not expecting this at all. When the lockdown began there was a list of essential services, of which the foodservice sector was part of. We are not sure if the pluck shops will be impacted on the extended stay home regulation, so we are waiting clarity on that.”

Phillips said stakeholders in the industry are now in a quandary knowing that each week farmers will produce 250,000 chickens with no buyers available.

“We don’t know where we will sell these chickens. Obviously, we can’t keep them on the farms. No one knows when the market will return to normalcy or when will the foodservice sector be reopened,” he said.

Phillips said they will try to store what they can for now but said each processor has limited cold storage.

“At least 90 per cent of the chickens we sell in the country is consumed within one week of it coming into the processing plants. We don’t have long term cold storage because the consumer prefers fresh chickens.”

Phillips said selling the chickens at reduced prices to food establishments was also not an option, as they too had inadequate storage and were not operating their businesses.

He said some chicken processors have contacted a few independent cold storage operators with the hope of storing the chickens at a fee they will have to absorb. Phillips added that shelf life of a frozen chicken is 180 days from the date of slaughter.

He said the first COVID blow came when airline caterers stopped purchasing chickens with the grounding of flights. Roti shops soon also reduced their orders.

“So it is just adding to the problem. KFC and Royal Castle are the ones that stand out. So the whole foodservice sector is shut down.”

Phillips said one solution was for Government to temporarily halt the importation of chicken.

“We are not sure if the Government will be interested in taking some of the chickens off our hands to feed the army and patients at the hospitals. We are willing to accept a deferred payment arrangement,” Phillips said.

In a Whatsapp message response yesterday, Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat told Guardian Media he has been speaking to poultry industry stakeholders throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have dealt with some issues facing duck meat producers and we are good for now,” he said.

However, he said added, “Excess poultry is inevitable because of the loss of the fried chicken business for now. I expect that supermarkets, to the extent they have storage, would absorb some of the supply and the processors can themselves process and hold chickens as a buffer for use by the supermarket trade.”

He said the issue of imports raised by the association would have to be addressed.

“We cannot close the door to imports but I can do what I can,” he said.

In terms of the state buying some of the chickens, Rambharat said that was an option they can explore. He said Namdevco was also examining excess storage capacity within the private sector for poultry and vegetables as “part of a strategy to create a buffer stock.”