Where’s the chicken?

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Last Wednesday, International Fried Chicken Day, I went to one of my favorite chicken fast-food chains and bought a leg quarter.

No problem with the order: I got the leg quarter, as plump as ever. The salesclerks told me they had no supply problem, unlike in some other chains. But the price of my leg quarter had gone up by about 25 percent from last year’s cost.

Either you fork out more for the same product, or you settle for smaller chicken. Or just go for a burger; at least you won’t have to ask, where’s the beef?

The first time the hashtag Chickensad trended was in 2014, but fastfood giant Jollibee clarified at the time that the temporary disappearance of its Chickenjoy and other popular items from some outlets was due to technical issues rather than any supply shortage.

Still, this happened after several months during which broiler producers warned of a real chicken shortage that the government initially denied.

This time, Chickensad is again trending, with McDonald’s and Jollibee affiliate Mang Inasal reporting similar supply problems.

Bong Inciong, president of the United Broiler Raisers’ Association, would not yet say that there’s a shortage like in 2013. He said the fast-food giants apparently want to maintain quality standards and don’t want to sell undersized chicken to their loyal customers.

We talked about the broiler supply situation with Inciong on One News’ “The Chiefs” last week. We were supposed to get an update from him in about a month, but the trending of Chickensad prompted us to get an update much earlier.

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President and temporary Agriculture Secretary Marcos has said he would put the brakes on agricultural importation and instead focus on boosting local production.

This is music to the ears of local players. But boosting local production and making the country’s agriculture sector globally competitive are long-term undertakings.

For the short term – or within this year, when experts are warning of a looming food crisis – the new administration might have no choice but to allow additional importation to stabilize supply and prices.

Inciong points out that even under normal circumstances, there is always poultry importation. But this time, disruptions in the global supply chain due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the consequent fuel price surge have slowed down the import process.

These days, Inciong says, it can take up to 60 and even 90 days for chicken imports to arrive, from just a few weeks pre-Russian invasion.

The high cost of animal feed, again due to the Ukraine crisis, is also affecting broiler production even in major exporters such as Brazil.

During the 2013-2014 shortage, the country at least had pork to fall back on. Inciong, whose interview with us was punctuated with an abundance of “unfortunately…,” pointed out that this time, the country is also grappling with African swine fever, now on its third year of infesting hog farms.

A hog raiser I know, who used to have a modest farm in Nueva Ecija that included tilapia ponds and plots planted to dragon fruit and giant “Millenium” mango, with the swine manure converted into gas that he used for cooking, threw his hands up in surrender and sold his farm in the first year of the pandemic.

In our previous interview, Inciong had explained how farmers’ woes could lead to scrawny chicken, or even to Chickensad.

The supply crunch in chemical fertilizer, which the country sources 100 percent from abroad, has affected production of yellow corn, of which the Philippine-grown variety is preferred by local broiler raisers.

This fertilizer supply problem, spawned by the Ukraine conflict, is on top of a slowdown in local corn feed production for the past two years because of lower demand due to the ASF pestilence and increased pork importation.

With insufficient chicken feed, we don’t have enough chicken.

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At least the roadside lechon manok and liempo stalls don’t seem to be running out of either chicken or pork belly. But prices are up, and not just by 6.1 percent – the inflation rate last month, the highest in four years.

We know that chicken and pork aren’t the only items with supply problems. Large French fries are still unavailable in fast-food establishments.

In May, as wheat supply was acutely disrupted by the Ukraine crisis and bread makers sought an increase in the prices of basic pandesal and “tasty” or white loaf bread, bakeshop chain Mary Grace cited supply problems for a shortage of its famous ensaymada. The price of the pastry has shot up exponentially.

The Department of Agriculture in the previous administration had approved the importation of fish including galunggong, in anticipation of low supply in the second half of this year. Former DA chief William Dar reaped flak for the importation, with senators saying the fish shortage was artificial.

President Marcos, the temp agriculture secretary, has acknowledged that he has his work cut out for him – precisely the reason why he decided to take the Cabinet post concurrently.

Before BBM’s aspiration for rice at P20 per kilo can be attained (with nearly all agricultural experts saying it’s Mission Impossible), he will first have to bring back the joy in our fried chicken.


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