Thursday, June 22, 2017

Small-bird market is short of chicken

There has been a shortage of chickens in the lightest-weight category for months, and it’s getting worse.

There are a number of factors, according to various sources in the chicken industry, none of them willing to be quoted by name.

One is that it’s not as profitable for either farmers or processors to market chicken in the lightest-weight category. They make better margins on weightier birds.

Production of these light-weight birds was cut back first in Quebec where they now are simply not available, and now in Ontario.

One of the suppliers, Farm Fresh Poultry co-operative at Harriston has converted to organic chicken and is no longer processing the lightest-weight category.

Maple Lodge Farms Ltd. at Norval, near Brampton, is cutting back on the category and some of its customers have been told the company will no longer be able to service them.

That has, in turn, left some retailers in the lurch. For example, one company president said he has many Mom and Pop barbecue restaurants serving the Portuguese community in Toronto and they are not able to get the light-weight birds.

He said one customer may be forced into bankruptcy because he recently expanded to add three more locations for which he now is unable acquire chicken.

These Portugeuse businesses use imported cooking equipment which require the small birds.

A spokesman for one of the supply-management regulators involved in the shortage said there have already been successful applications for supplementary import permits.

Another related issue is reduced supply from the United States when the Canadian Border Services Agency began using DNA testing to distinguish boneless chicken breasts that are harvested from spent fowl or from broilers.

The national agency complained before that there was so much chicken being imported as spent fowl, for which there is no tariff, that the total was greater than the entire U.S. supply.

When that supply dropped, the Canadian supply-management system was not able to react immediately to fill the void, so there was a shortage.

The result is record-high, and still climbing, prices for boneless chicken breast meat.

And yet another factor has been the inability of Ontario to produce up to the increased limits granted under a new deal with the national agency.

For all but one of the quota periods in the last two years, Ontario has fallen short of filling its allocation. In the most recent quota period, it actually produced less than the comparable quota period last year.

One of the "explanations" that has been cited is a retrovirus that is impacting chick quality and supplies. Another is that Mexico has needed chicks from the U.S. and that has reduced the supply there, including the availability for Canadians.

One of the embarrassing issues for supply management is that part of its bargain with the public is that in return for being able to charge prices high enough to cover production costs and provide acceptable returns for labour, management and investment, it is to keep the Canadian market adequately supplied with wholesome chicken.