Kolkata: Sales of chicken in India seem to have something in common with another bird, the mythical phoenix. “After every declaration of bird flu in the country, the industry has recorded more growth,” said Anuradha Desai, chairperson of the Pune-based Rs1,300-crore Venkateshwara Hatcheries Group. Desai also heads the National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC), an association of more than 25,000 poultry farmers.
According to her, before the bird flu scare, West Bengal used to consume 900,000 chickens every day. “That took a 70% hit in the first few days of the bird flu scare and farm-gate prices, too, crashed from Rs50 per kg to Rs20,” she said.
“Now, however, I am told the daily sales figure is close to the 14-lakh mark, though the prices still remain down.”
Falling prices: A chicken seller in Rajabazar wholesale goat market in Kolkata. A few days after the bird flu outbreak, farm-gate prices of chicken have crashed from Rs50 per kg to Rs20. (Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/ Mint)
Desai has a theory on this. “I guess people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford chicken can do so now that the prices are down,” she said. “Once converted to chicken, they stick on even after the scare has passed and prices come back to normal.”
Not everyone is convinced of this. According to Shashi Kapoor, chairman of the working committee of the Poultry Federation of India, a pan-Indian body of poultry associations, there is a drop in sales during the months after the outbreak and prices fall. “Then, when the scare subsides, demand picks up but by then most of the birds have been culled and there is scarcity,” he said.
This drives up prices to levels beyond that prevailing when the pandemic erupted. “You were selling at Rs100 a kg, prices fell to Rs75 and then the shortage drove up the prices to Rs125 in two months,” he explains, adding, “That really can’t be called growth as both the prices and the quantity consumed even out over the rest of the year.”
But he agrees with Desai that the industry is too robust and demand too great for any long-term slowdown. “The industry has shaken off past outbreaks and this time won’t be any different,” he said.
However, in Namakkal, an important poultry centre 300km south-west of Chennai, things are not so good at present. Exports have been hit by 50%, as only four-five containers are being exported per day against 9-10 containers normally, according to NECC officials. West Asian countries have banned imports after the outbreak of bird flu in West Bengal, despite Namakkal being some 2,000km away.
In Kerala, where there has been no report of any case of bird flu, there’s been no impact on the trade. “Since most of the chicken and eggs come from neighbouring Tamil Nadu where, according to reports, necessary precautionary steps have been taken by the authorities, stock flow continues and both the demand and prices for chicken and eggs have seen no drop,” said A.A. Rafeeq, president of the All-Kerala Poultry Association.
But poultry consumptions have dropped marginally across the border in Karnataka. “This (drop) is more so because of consumer psychology despite the whole of South India being free from bird flu,” said P.S. Nandakumar, president of the Karnataka Hatcheries Association. He is also the managing director of the Komarla Group, which owns hatcheries in Bangalore. However, he said that the industry has been constantly growing at 10-12%.
“The future is bright for this sector because chicken is not a seasonal meat, there are no restrictions on its consumption and it is available at reasonable prices,” Nandakumar said.
Vidhya Sivaramakrishnan in Namakkal, Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore, Ajayan in Kochi and Siddharth Sarma in New Delhi contributed to this story.