Poultry sector urged to agree on heat treatment protocol

20th April 2023

By: Schalk Burger

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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Frozen foods importer, exporter and distributor Hume International said South Africa urgently needs to agree on a heat treatment protocol for mechanically deboned meat (MDM), such as the protocol currently in place for pork sourced from approved markets abroad, in case of a bird flu outbreak.

While the presence of bird flu typically does not impact the safety of poultry for human consumption, having such a protocol in place could simultaneously safeguard MDM supply chains while setting consumers’ minds at ease, said Hume International MD Fred Hume.

Further, in general, MDM is already subjected to heat treatment to reduce the risk of microbial contamination and improve its safety for consumption. The process typically involves cooking meat at a high temperature for a specific period of time.

Imported chicken provides a crucial complement to local production for satisfying local demand. Hume International imported about 60 000 t of poultry last year, while South Africa as a whole imported three times as much poultry as it exported in terms of nominal value.

Therefore, the global bird flu outbreak is posing a significant risk to the country’s food security, especially given the dependence of many households on chicken as an affordable protein.

The outbreak has already reached countries such as Argentina, which represents cause for alarm, as the country shares borders with Brazil, which is the biggest source of imported chicken in South Africa.

"Brazil supplies the country with more than half of our imported poultry meat. By comparison, the US provides only 10% to 15% of our imports a year," Hume said.

"When, not if, Brazil faces a bird-flu outbreak the consequences may prove to be dire for South Africa’s poultry supply," he said.

Without a heat treatment protocol, South Africans should brace for impact, as the serious threat of an outbreak in Brazil could have a devastating impact on local supply chains, significantly driving up prices or even causing shortages.

Further, poultry is an important high-protein, low-cost food staple for the majority of South Africans. Any increases in this vital food’s price would therefore have a severe impact on vulnerable low-income households, who already spend a significant portion of their monthly budgets on food, he noted.

"We are already in a difficult situation locally. The Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group reports in its March 2023 Household Affordability Index that frozen chicken portions saw an average price increase of 9% relative to the same period last year.

"Chicken feet rose 11%, gizzards by 10% and chicken livers by 5% over the same period. This is in addition to the sharp price increases of other important foods, such as cooking oil at 16%, samp at 24%, maize meal at 26%, and potatoes at 52%, among others."

Therefore, a sharp hike in prices from chicken suppliers, or a marked shortage of supply will have a devastating effect on the economy and lead to increased food scarcity.

Usually, local producers can offset import food shortages and slow runaway prices with local supply, but South Africa simply does not produce enough poultry to meet local demand and be price competitive. Additionally, the local industry is facing enormous cost-pressures as a result of power, water and infrastructure challenges, he said.

"The result of limited poultry imports from Brazil that would be brought on by a bird flu outbreak is, therefore, that poorer communities could be forced to give up their primary source of animal protein. Companies and factories that trade in and process imported chicken could grind to a halt, leading to a spike in unemployment, food security could come under greater threat and inflation could skyrocket," he averred.

It is imperative that government intervenes before it is too late. The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) bans entire countries when they face a bird flu outbreak, although it has a special provision in place for America, Hume added.

"Beyond implementing effective heat treatment protocols, we are appealing to government to enact a similar policy with regards to Brazil as it does with America, and only ban imports from individual States impacted by bird flu, as opposed to a blanket country-wide ban.

"Additionally, once a country has been declared bird flu-free, DALRRD must be more proactive in reinstating import permits for that particular country. In some cases, bans have remained on countries for years after they have been declared bird flu free.

"Government must start being proactive, rather than reactive, if we are to avoid what could be South Africa’s next major food crisis," he stated.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter



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