US demand spooks SA agriculture

The department of agriculture is facing a tough choice in the next 60 days. It must moderate its approach to bird flu and salmonella risk when it comes to imports from the United States or see South Africa’s agricultural products, and possibly others, stripped of their US trade benefits.

President Barack Obama caught South African officials off-guard when he delivered an ultimatum in a letter on Thursday last week: allow US poultry, beef and pork exports within 60 days or the preferential trade agreements for the export of South African agricultural products to the US will be withdrawn.

The general feeling is that, although the South African government will probably reply before the time is up, it is anyone’s guess whether the US will be happy with the response, and what it will then decide to do.

“While private sector accepts government assurances that the process is fully on track and that agreement will be reached within the 60-day period, there still is some uncertainty as to whether the US will accept the final outcome of the two outstanding issues on animal health – the avian flu – and food safety – the salmonella issue – specifically,” said John Purchase, the chief executive of the agricultural chamber of business.

Allowing US poultry into the South African market became the central issue in deciding whether South Africa should be included in the US’s African Growth and Opportunities Act (Agoa), which allows the exports of select African nations preferential access to the US market.

If South Africa is excluded, products such as citrus fruit, wine and macadamia nuts will no longer be duty-free when entering the US as of January 4 next year. If no resolution is achieved by March 1, the US will reconsider the position of other Agoa-eligible products.

South Africa’s inclusion in the renewed Agoa, announced in March, was subject to review every six months and put pressure on South African and US poultry industries to come to an in-principle agreement on the contentious issue of bone-in poultry imports in June this year. The agreement allows 65 000 tonnes of cheap US bone-in chicken to be imported each year, and the anti-dumping tariffs, which were designed to keep the imports out and protect the local industry, will be fully rebated.

Last week, the International Trade Administration Commission released draft guidelines on these allocations for industry comment by Friday this week.

But the document is premature because an outbreak of highly pathogenic bird flu in the US, as well as issues such as salmonella and related diseases, means US poultry, pork and beef will still be prevented from entering the domestic market until these concerns are ironed out.

The government is confident that the pork and beef issues will be resolved, Purchase said. It’s only the state vets who must now come to an agreement.

Hannes Swart, a director of the local poultry veterinary health service, Avimune, said the salmonella sticking point is more easily overcome because it is simple to test for the bacteria. “When it comes to salmonella, we can allow import, but then countries must adhere to certain testing to be sure we don’t import any salmonella causing detrimental effect to humans,” Swart said.

Insiders say the US is not necessarily averse to testing, but it wants to know what tests South Africa requires and why.

Avian flu is a bigger concern because testing for it in meat is not easy and involves added effort and cost. The virus is airborne, and there was an outbreak in the US that began in December last year.

Both the US and South Africa are members of the World Organisation for Animal Health, which has general standards on how to treat highly pathogenic avian flu, although every nation chooses how it goes about satisfying the standard.

The US opts for regionalisation, which shuts down affected states until they are certified clear. South Africa prefers compartmentalisation, which isolates smaller areas which are subject to closer surveillance. “It could be a small geographic area, or one company operating from a number of farms,” Swart said.

Since December, 100 countries continued to import US poultry and 39 countries have restarted trade with the US by mutual agreement or formal protocol.

The World Organisation for Animal Health makes provision for regionalisation for diseases such as foot-and-mouth, which is not airborne, said Swart. But containment is difficult with diseases that are airborne.

US industry experts however claim both regionalisation and compartmentalisation achieve the same thing and the issue between the two nations is now about harmonising the procedures.

South Africa’s poultry has never experienced avian flu “so you can imagine why we are hesitant”, Swart said. “Normally, when you look at trade agreements, if you don’t have a disease in your country, you will go through all the added efforts to avoid it from entering your borders.”

South Africa had an outbreak of avian flu in its ostrich population and, although eradicated, it is now subject to close surveillance. Each bird is tagged and traceable, as required by the European Union.

South Africa has to test some exports monthly, such as hatching eggs and breeding stock, but there are no requirements to test chicken meat as poultry has never been at risk of contracting avian flu, Swart said.

According to a report from USA Today, 42-million layers and 7.5-million turkeys had to be killed in the US because of the disease. South Africa’s flock of layers was estimated to be about 25-million in April.

“The poultry industry is the biggest agricultural industry in the country, and do you want to put that at risk?” Swart asked.

Kevin Lovell, the chief executive of the South African Poultry Association, said although there was, conceptually, no problem with the regionalisation system, it could not be achieved in 60 days. The US’s own guidelines on regionalisation state that the process can take several years. “It’s simply unfair to expect our vets to do what will take the US several years to do within 60 days,” he said.

Mooketsa Ramasodi, the chief director of inspection services for the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, said the departmental and US teams were discussing the issues and would release the details of the talks when they were concluded.

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