SINGAPORE - Chicken importers facing a Malaysian export ban that kicks in from June 1 are urging their clients to accept whatever parts - such as breast or wing - are available, rather than order the whole bird.
For their part, importers are ramping up processing before the ban, stockpiling as much chicken in chillers and freezers while they can to counter uncertainties ahead.
"We are working with our customers and have asked them to switch to different... parts, depending on what's available," said Mr James Sim, head of business development at importer Kee Song Food.
Its clients include online retailers, supermarket chains, restaurant groups, wet markets and chicken rice stalls.
For example, chicken rice stalls that normally opt for whole chickens have been asked to take on parts instead.
Malaysia is currently facing a chicken shortage, with Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announcing on May 23 that it will halt the export of up to 3.6 million chickens a month from June 1, until domestic prices and production stabilise.
The Straits Times reported over the weekend that suppliers in Malaysia are working overtime to deliver chickens here.
Importers here have also been putting in extended hours.
Companies like Kee Song have tripled the usual number of shifts to process fresh chickens before the ban sets in.
Last week, the Singapore Food Agency said the Animal & Veterinary Service extended operating hours for inspection of live poultry at Tuas Checkpoint from May 25 to May 31.
"More chickens than usual came in over the weekend... we've brought in about 30 to 40 per cent more chicken per day, but that's all we can process due to limitations of time and labour," said Mr Sim, who added that live chickens have to be processed within 24 hours.
"A portion of it will be kept frozen, and I foresee we will be able to last for one to two weeks before stocks are depleted," he added.
As a company that exclusively imports live chickens from Malaysia, it is expecting to take a 90 per cent to 95 per cent hit in revenue in the coming weeks.
Last week, supermarket chain FairPrice said it has a stockpile of frozen chicken that can last for about four months, with another two months of supply on the way.
"The Government has sufficient stockpiles, so the supermarkets should be able to sustain sufficient stocks," noted Mr Ma Chin Chew, secretary for the Poultry Merchants' Association.
"It's just that there might be a shortage of fresh chicken for a while."
As for when fresh chicken will run out in Singapore, Mr Ma said it depends on how much stock each company has in its cold stores.
He added that many importers here are adopting a wait-and-see approach over whether the ban might last beyond a month.
"I think the supply of chicken will take a few weeks to stabilise," he said.
"Right now the chickens are all too small and need time to grow... but once the birds get bigger, then they (Malaysian suppliers) will also have to sell them, otherwise they might have to deal with a surplus of chickens."
He added: "I don't think many importers here will start bringing in more frozen chicken, because there is so much uncertainty about the ban in Malaysia... it could last a few weeks or more than a month, we don't know."
As for whether trucks carrying chickens that have yet to reach Singapore before June 1 will be turned back, he said permits - which are typically issued a week before - have been issued only up to May 31.
"So if they don't have a permit to export, then they won't be able to bring chickens over," he noted.
On Monday morning, most customers at wet markets and supermarkets visited by ST said they were buying their usual amount of chicken.
However, some like Mr Damien Lee, 35, who is self-employed, wanted to mark their last meal made with fresh chicken before the item becomes unavailable.
"If the prices increase exorbitantly, I may eat less chicken... but I want to eat my last grand chicken meal before that happens with my family (of four)," said Mr Lee, who purchased two whole fresh chickens from FairPrice Finest at Clementi Mall.
"For now, it is still affordable, but if it increases by $5, that would be a bit overboard... if that happens, we'll probably just eat other meats or more vegetables," he added.
Others like Mr Samuel Chin, 53, a delivery driver who was shopping at Ghim Moh Market, hope that people will not overbuy.
"Not only will you waste food, you will also waste money if you cannot finish it. I don't know anyone personally who is hoarding (chickens), but (I'm sure) there will be people who hoard, and then end up throwing it away because it's not fresh anymore... Just buy what you need and what you can finish," said Mr Chin.
- Additional reporting by Deon Loke