Ostrich ban brings SA farmers to their knees

The future of South Africa’s ostrich industry hinges on the lifting on a ban on exported meat, with time and money running out for farmers.

About 741 farms used to be registered with the SA Ostrich Business Chamber (SAOBC), but this number decreased when the H5N2 bird flu virus broke out in the Klein Karoo, in the Western Cape, last April.

“This [number] has reduced significantly in the past few months, with the European Union (EU) export ban being a main driver, as it’s no longer profitable,” SAOBC interim chief Piet Kleyn said.

The EU used to import 90% of South Africa’s ostrich meat.

The ban’s effects had been keenly felt by ostrich farms, mostly found in the Klein Karoo valley, Southern Cape and Eastern Cape, which used to slaughter 250 000 birds a year for meat, leather and feathers.

Jobs at stake
More than 40 000 infected ostriches were culled following the outbreak, according to Western Cape agricultural spokesperson Wouter Kriel.

He said the industry was losing about R108-million a month in export revenue and 20 000 job opportunities were at stake.

The national government provided R50-million compensation to farmers who lost birds, but many had to close their farms or survive with a limited flock.

The last time a highly pathogenic virus form was detected was in October. A low pathogenic form, which caused mild disease in poultry, was detected in February but had already been slaughtered out, said Kriel.

However, the agriculture department would apply to lift the ban only once the industry had been restructured in line with the recommendations of a EU delegation that visited the country in February.

It required that all farmers re-register their businesses and comply with specific regulations before any of them would be allowed to export meat.

Reliable and responsible
They were told this was necessary to protect the country’s image as a reliable and responsible exporter, said Kriel.

He said the industry accepted the recommendations and agreed it was sound advice, but time was running out.

“As the Western province, we are lobbying national government to re-think this approach and let’s rather allow a few guys to export now. Let’s find ways to get them to export at this stage, otherwise the industry will collapse,” he said.

“This [process] might take as a long as a year. We have a situation where all the [ostrich] farmers in the export business haven’t had income for a year. They are struggling to survive and have to invest more capital in order to export.”

The delegation recommended that bird and farm density be reduced, the movement of ostriches between farms and areas be cut down and ostrich health regulations be tightened up.

Domestic prospects few
Kleyn said he believed a solution could be found if farmers, businesses and national and provincial government worked together.

Farmers were increasingly looking to the domestic market to sell ostrich meat, but there were few prospects as it was niche market which was favoured mostly by the health-conscious.

“It’s ironic and frustrating. The meat that we are not allowed to export is perfectly safe and can be sold into the domestic market. It is very small though and wherever we could, we’ve been trying to campaign and lobby,” Klein said.

Ostrich is a pricey meat as it cannot be sold on the bone, unlike beef and mutton. A 95kg bird yields only about 15kg to 17kg of prime cuts.

Klein said a glimmer of hope for farmers was “a nice increase” in the price of leather and feathers.

The national department was unable to comment on Thursday as it was briefing Parliament on its budget vote.

It was likely to give detailed comment soon.—Sapa

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