The government is exploring the possibility of importing 3,500 metric tons of chicken, notwithstanding concerns expressed by Sri Lankan poultry producers that `the move would disturb the local industry`, trade officials said last week.
With a limited choice at hand in terms of procuring the produce from bird flu free countries, the government is now looking at pricing and the speed of delivery from suppliers in the United Kingdom, United States of America (USA), Australia and Brazil, they said.
These four nations have been declared free of bird flu by OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization).
An acute dearth of chicken in the local market has sent prices through the roof a kilo selling between 500 and 600 rupees in the open market. The prevailing shortage has been attributed to the ban on imported maize and escalating production costs which curtailed the growth of this vital industry.
The best choice for imports, both in terms of pricing and swift delivery, would have been India, but the detection of positive strains of the Avian Influenza prevents any sourcing from this neighbouring country.
`Sri Lanka s poultry industry has gone through a difficult phase in its history`, says Dr. D. D. Wanasinghe, Chairman, All Island Poultry Association. `Resorting to imports now will have a debilitating impact on the trade`.
`We have expressed concern over moves to import chicken as this is not the time to disturb an industry which is recovering`, he noted. `The market should return to normal by mid July`.
In any case, imports from one of the four listed bird flu safe countries could take up to three weeks, he pointed out. `Then what about the pricing, freight and other cost factors?`
The Association had separate meetings with Consumer Affairs Minister Johnston Fernando, Livestock Development Minister Arumugam Thondaman and Treasury Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundara to iron out issues in a bid to end the shortage.
Minister Thondaman had shown interest in importing stocks from Tamil Nadu, but despite the availability of competitive pricing, the proposal was shot down due to the continuing bird flu threat, officials said.
`We are fine tuning our distribution system also to keep stocks moving promptly`, Dr. Wanasinghe explained. `Imports at this juncture will disturb the local production process`.
Some Colombo supermarkets complained that producers are more interested in supplying the live bird market where retail prices are not determined by a price control mechanism. `They make more money there`.
Producers who supply supermarkets and other such outlets are bound to abide by the retail price ceiling of 350 rupees per kilo of whole chicken with skin.
`Customers blame us when there is no chicken available`, a supermarket official said. `We order stocks but they go elsewhere`.
Repeated attempts to contact Minister Thondaman for his comments on moves to import chicken were futile. He did not return the calls.