SA ostrich farmers fear bird flu

South Africa, the world’s largest exporter of ostrich meat, is taking extensive measures to prevent a bird-flu outbreak that could cripple an industry still reeling from a year-long ban on exports.

As migratory birds from Europe and Asia head for Africa, South African ostrich farmers, who are mainly based at Oudtshoorn in the southern Cape, are taking all possible steps to prevent a crisis.

“It could be a disaster for us. We are more alert and farmers know what the outcome can be if avian flu can happen,” Oudtshoorn ostrich farmer Joey Fourie said.

About 26 000 ostriches have had to be culled in the Oudtshoorn area of the scrubland Karoo in the past year after testing positive for a less virulent strain of bird flu than the deadly H5N1 variety, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since late 2003.

Farmers lost R700-million in revenue over the year and 400 workers were retrenched as a result of the resultant ban on meat exports.

South Africa was declared free of bird flu in September.

Breeding scientist Willem Berger said the industry slaughters more than 280 000 birds every year, mainly for the export market in Europe, the Middle East and Scandinavian countries.

Experts warn that migrating birds from Asia, which are believed to have carried the virus to south-eastern Europe in recent weeks, normally head towards Africa afterwards.

“The arrival of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza on the African continent would be of great concern for human as well as animal health,” the World Health Organisation said in a statement.

“Although there are no water birds that migrate from the northern hemisphere to South Africa, certain shore birds visit our coastline during the summer months,” South Africa’s agriculture ministry said last month.

“Very strict import requirements are in place for live birds and poultry products,” it added.

The ministry has given farmers strict guidelines such as not keeping domestic birds such as ducks, geese, chickens or turkeys in close contact with ostriches.

It also said the birds should not have contact with wild water birds or access to water pans in camps where they are being kept.

“We are free for the moment, but we can’t predict what will happen in the future,” Berger said.

“Every farmer has registered and tagged their birds as part of a plan ensuring that all birds were vaccinated,” Fourie said, adding that it costs R7 to vaccinate one bird.

“As farmers we are doing our best to observe these measures. We are vaccinating our labourers’ chickens and putting strict control measures to monitor people coming and going out of farms,” said Fourie, a fifth-generation ostrich farmer.

Farmers not only sell meat, but also ostrich feathers and skins, while the egg shells of the huge birds, which can grow up to about 2,5m tall, are turned into curios.

Fourie’s Welbedag ostrich farm slaughters at least 4 000 birds a year, mainly for export, while South Africa supplies 60% to 70% of the world market.

The Klein Karoo Group, the business arm of the ostrich industry, said the recent ban on exports saw farmers increase local sales by about 500%.

Klein Karoo Group spokesperson Jan Greyling said the group also purchased a factory to prepare pre-cooked foods for a range of clients in the airline and hospitality business.

“We are now in the food industry, not just selling ostrich meat,” said Greyling.—Sapa-AFP

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