Cape Town - What consumers see in shops when they buy imported US chicken is certainly not tasty-looking when it arrives in frozen block form, noted the South African Poultry Association (Sapa).
Sapa chief executive officer Kevin Lovell has taken issue with comments made by Jim Sumner who is president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council (USAPEEC) in an article published on Fin24.
Read the article here: US poultry a win for SA consumers - council
Due to pressure from the USAPEEC via a few US senators, South Africa agreed in the US African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) renewal negotiations to the tariff free import of 65 000 metric tons of American chicken.
American chicken producers prefer chicken breast meat and wings and regard the leg quarter, i.e. the thigh and the drum, as by-products. Agoa allows them to export these pieces, including pork and beef, to South Africa at “dumping” prices.
About 17 years ago the USAPEEC was put out of the SA market due to a complaint of dumping by the SA government and the local poultry industry at the time.
"We are thrilled to be back in the South African market after about 17 years," Sumner told Fin24 during his visit to Cape Town this week.
Responding to this, Lovell indicated that the South African market was never closed to US imports.
"There was an anti-dumping duty imposed on US chicken bone-in portions, essentially the chicken waste US consumers don't eat. This anti-dumping duty was never challenged on its merits in the courts nor at the World Trade Organisation."
Lovell explained that Sumner's comment that "we get more for breast meat in the US so we can charge less for leg meat" leads to imports landing in the country at prices far below the cost of production for the local industry.
"The threat to our existing producers, whether large or small is clearly quantifiable, as is the loss of jobs for local employees and the businesses of emerging farmers. For every 10 000 tons of imports, 1 000 job opportunities are lost," he claimed.
Lovell added that the 65 000 ton annual quota agreed to by Sapa was what Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies termed a "patriotic sacrifice".
"It was not in our interests and the legality of anti-dumping duties was never in question. Any imports over this quota are still subject to that duty. That the Agoa renewal was held hostage to facilitate access for anti-dumping duty-free imports via the back door speaks for itself; rather than celebrate, Mr Sumner should be ashamed."
In the article, Sumner emphasised that the US's low cost chicken does not mean the product is inferior.
"The US has the highest food safety standards in the world with inspections of each bird and each flock both before and after processing," he said. "This kind of testing ensures that there is never a chance that any kind of disease could get into the human food chain."
However, Lovell disputed this claim, pointing out to outbreaks of Salmonella, which is often caused by ingesting food contaminated with the bacteria.
"The US centre for Disease Control estimates that around 1.2 million illnesses and around 450 deaths occur each year in the USA caused by Salmonella. In 2015, there were a number of outbreaks including Salmonella enteritidis infections linked to raw, frozen, stuffed chicken products produced by Aspen Foods; drug-resistant Salmonella enteritidis infections linked to raw, frozen, stuffed chicken products produced by Barber Foods; and human Salmonella infections linked to live poultry."
Lovell maintains that the Agoa brinkmanship brought pressure to bear on local health authorities to lower testing standards applied to these US imports - standards different to those applied to all other imported and local products.
"If the US thought their standards are the 'highest in the world' and equal to ours, why would they have fought to have them changed and hold Agoa hostage because of it? All is not as healthy as they would like us to believe."
Lovell also supplied Fin24 with images showing how the US chicken looks in its blue plastic bags when arriving in South Africa and what it looks like when sold to consumers.
He told Fin24 the pictures were taken at a deli after it was confirmed that it was indeed chicken from the US.
Lovell explained that imported foods come to South Africa in various forms. He said block frozen is when a waxed cardboard box is lined with a plastic and water poured over the chicken and then frozen. Shatter pack is when for example fish has thin plastic covers between them.
He added that the price of R31.99 per kilogram, depicted in the picture, goes to show that what is claimed to be low-cost is clearly not that cheap for the consumer.
"Someone is getting fat on cheap imports, and it isn't your average, hard-pressed South African consumer struggling to put decent food on the table."
Lovell also had some positive feedback.
"We do welcome the expressed intention of the USAPEEC to work with historically disadvantaged individuals and trust that this will lead to genuine opportunities for emerging black importers in what is currently a completely white-owned and dominated economic sector."
He said Sapa will monitor progress in this regard to avoid fronting by a connected elite to the exclusion of genuine broad-based black economic empowerment and look forward working with USAPEEC to achieve this goal.
USAPEEC and the US government had also committed to assisting in the development of black poultry farmers in South Africa.
"We hope that these promises will be kept and the transformation of the productive poultry industry assisted."
Davies admitted that negotiations with the US Agoa have been tough, but noted SA managed to get the best deal possible under tough conditions.
In his speech that followed his department’s budget vote in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, Davies said government has concluded the negotiations on poultry, beef and pork with the United States.
“This brings to a close several months of discussions with the United States on the terms required to secure South Africa’s position in the Agoa for the next 10 years.
"The first shipment of poultry (frozen chicken legs) arrived at the Port of Durban and was cleared by the Port Health Authorities,” Davies said.
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