Coronavirus | Why the risk of a meat shortage is different in SA

As the US grapples with a meat-supply crunch that has sent suppliers of plant-based alternatives into overdrive, experts say the scenario is likely to play out differently in South Africa.

Large numbers of employees at US meat-processing facilities tested positive for the virus, and the spread of infections near US meat packing plants increased at a nearly twice the national average, according to Bloomberg. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that conditions at meat packing factories made it difficult to maintain social distancing, contributing to the rapid spread.

In Europe, meanwhile, large numbers of infections have been reported at some abattoirs, including in Germany and Ireland, according to the Robert Koch Institute.

US President Donald Trump had ordered meat processing plants to remain open, arguing that the nation's food supplies had to be protected.

But now, reports Bloomberg, meat is out of reach for many of the country's low-income earners.

Does South Africa face the same risks? Not exactly, says Peter Gordon, CEO of the South African Meat Processors Association (Sampa).

Spread out

Abattoirs and meat processing plants function differently in South Africa, he explains. For starters, SA has numerous small abattoirs, whereas has fewer large dominant players. These mega abattoirs in the US also often have their own value-adding factories, so the trickle-down effect on supply is more direct.

Even if some meat processing plants had to shut in SA, it would likely not have the same impact on the availability of meat as in the US, says Gordon.

In SA the meat processing plants are not dependent on just once abattoir or factory. So, if one had to close down, they might only lose about 20% of their supply. The meat supply chain in the US is, therefore, more vulnerable. If a plant had to close in SA, the shortfall could be picked up by others to make up the volume.

Only if about five or six had to close at the same time in SA, it would impact supply, he says.

Furthermore, abattoirs are spread all over SA, with beef mainly in the northern parts of the country, lamb in the Karoo and Northern Cape and pork in the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The abattoirs are mostly situated away from urban hotspots in more rural areas and using workers from local communities who do not need to commute.

Managing risk

In Gordon's view, the US and Europe can learn from the way SA is approaching the crisis proactively.

"Of course, everybody in the SA meat processing industry is trying to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks at local abattoirs and processing plants. There have been a few local incidents so far where workers presented Covid-19 type symptoms," he says.

"Then the standard protocols were followed as prescribed by the Departments of Health and Labour in terms of occupational safety and plants closing for deep cleaning. Disruptions were mostly delays of two to three days before authorities were satisfied that work could resume."

A great deal has been done by SA food manufacturers to manage risks and keep the virus out of food facilities, including temperature checks for workers and the provision of personal protective equipment like face masks and sanitiser.  

Educational materials in various official languages have been provided to workers, as well as training to ensure they understand the coronavirus risks. Risk mitigation officers required for Level 4 lockdown have also been appointed.

"We are focusing on making sure our members are economically viable at the end of the pandemic and making sure that our food is safe and that we can provide it at an affordable price," says Gordon.

Buying patterns

Tracy Davids of the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) says due to current weak buying power among SA consumers, there has been some stock piling in meat cold storage facilities in the country.

Therefore, even if a meat processing plant or a few plants had to close temporarily, volumes could be made up from cold storage facilities.

If supply shortages should occur, that would impact meat prices, she adds. Should more meat have to be imported due to a shortage, the weaker rand will also have an impact on the price.

"However, since there is a fair amount of meat in cold storage, we should not experience meat shortages if plants could reopen fairly quickly," she says.

In the event of a meat shortage due to Covid-19 infections at abattoirs and meat processing plants, it would offer alternative protein companies an opportunity to convince consumers to try their products, says Sameer Singh, an investment analyst at Old Mutual.

Severe meat shortages as a result of abattoirs and plants having to close in the US, even resulted in several popular fast-food chains not able to keep up with the demand for beef burgers.

Earlier this week an outbreak of African Swine Fever outbreak has been detected in the Eastern Cape for the first time. The new outbreak comes months after the department had to announce a government ban on the public auction of hoofed livestock to prevent a spread of foot and mouth in December.

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