June 18, 2024

Government assurances needed for egg importers to step up to the plate

4 min read

The ongoing egg shortage crisis requires immediate legislative intervention and assurances for importers to step up and plug the gap on shelves, warn experts at Hume International: a major South African import, export and food distribution company.

Notably, the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development’s (DALRRD) regulations regarding the grading, packing and marking of eggs intended for sale in South Africa – otherwise known as Regulation 345 – prohibits the sale of imported eggs after 40 days from the date of hatching. Yet, well-refrigerated eggs remain edible for up to six months, which could theoretically allow egg imports to bridge the supply shortage as local producers are hard-hit by a bird flu outbreak. 

Imports play a critical role in filling shortages in the local market if and when local suppliers fail to meet demand. But South Africa currently only imports around US$1.6 million worth of eggs per year, making it the 118th largest importer in the world, according to trade data released by the Observatory of Economic Complexity. To resolve the country’s current egg shortage crisis, this amount needs to substantially increase. 

“Shell eggs, or what we commonly call table eggs, are not imported in large enough volumes to meet local demand at this time,” says Jonathan Katz, an industry-leading expert on dairy at Hume International. “With the onset of the recent egg shortage, we urgently need to re-evaluate the efficacy of South Africa’s fairly obstructive import restrictions. We need the government to intervene to temporarily lower import restrictions on eggs, and relook the regulations to ensure this type of situation doesn’t happen again.”

He explains that, in an ideal world and under optimal conditions, it would take two weeks to ship eggs from port to port from, for example, Brazil or Argentina. “But if the shipping company chooses to transship, which involves moving the eggs from one vessel to another, it could add an extra two days to the schedule. Plus, if there are issues in getting the eggs out of the exporting country, that may be an additional week. Then, any issues at the local port would push the shipment beyond the tight 40-day period.”

If this happens, importers can apply for a special dispensation with the Department of Food Safety and Quality Assurance, a subdivision of DALRRD. This dispensation is a standard request for permission to temporarily deviate from the regulation. This process may take another month, with no guarantee that it will be accepted.

“In our experience, a number of departments seem to be on the side of importers, mainly because they understand that something needs to be done about the egg crisis. But a single container of eggs costs in the region of R1 million, and we have little to no assurance that we will receive the dispensation needed to sell the eggs should a shipment exceed the allowed 40-day sell-by period. No importer wants to risk a financial loss of this size – importers are simply not willing to take that chance,” says Katz.

“So, while our clients in the food industry alone currently require some four million eggs per month for the foreseeable future, we cannot assist with this demand without the necessary policy interventions and certainty from the government.”

He further explains that the local industry is struggling to get ahead of the curve, and is currently focused on bringing fertilised layer eggs into South Africa to rebuild commercial flocks, rather than the table eggs that can be supplied directly to consumers. While this may resolve the crisis in the long term and stabilise the local market, the process will take a few months to complete and will not solve the immediate shortage.

Further compounding the issue, Katz notes that greater consumer education is potentially needed to encourage local households to purchase white eggs, which are more readily available among global suppliers. “South Africans generally prefer brown-shell eggs over the white-shell alternative. There may even be misconceptions around the quality differences between the two. But the truth is, white and brown eggs are exactly the same, and we need to encourage the local market to accept white eggs, which are often easier to import from countries such as Brazil.

“If what’s happening now happens again, which it will, consumers may have to get used to eating white eggs. Ultimately, it would be good to see the government helping to drive public awareness around the acceptability of both brown and white eggs, and to clearly state that they support importers – especially at this time.”

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