Sustainability of beef industry at stake as foot-and-mouth hits

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SA’s beef and the broader red-meat industry, boasting an annual turnover of more than R80bn and responsible for about 500,000 jobs, is on edge after the latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which threatens its growth prospects. 

Agriculture, land reform & rural development minister Thoko Didiza confirmed last month the outbreak of foot-and-mouth was detected in cattle in Mtubatuba in uMkhanyakude District Municipality, KwaZulu-Natal.

After the latest foot-and-mouth outbreak, Botswana has put a temporary ban on SA livestock and beef imports to curb the spread of the disease. Indications are that more countries will follow suit.

Foot-and-mouth is a severe, contagious viral disease that affects livestock, causing production losses. The disease is especially endemic in several parts of Asia and in most of Africa and the Middle East. The disease does not affect humans, hence consumers have no reason for concern, the government says.

The beef industry was on a strong recovery path after recent severe droughts, and the previous foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2019 that cost it at least R8bn had been largely contained.

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The crisis afflicting beef producers mirrors that of the poultry industry, which has been hard hit by avian flu, threatening the sustainability of the largest segment of the agricultural sector.

“The recent outbreak of the foot-and-mouth disease is something we should be concerned about especially as it impacts our trade,” says Wandile Sihlobo, head of agribusiness research at the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz), an industry body.  

The outbreak could affect meat prices. Meat price inflation could be subdued as export bans will increase local supplies, eating into producer profits.

Sihlobo says it is too early to state categorically what the financial impact will be after the latest outbreak, “but obviously the temporary bans on exports do weigh on the industry and you will see the impact on that even on a pricing of meat products over time”.

Gerhard Schutte, CEO of the Red Meat Producers Organisation, which represents the interests of producers, agrees that the damage caused by the outbreak, though currently isolated, could be severe.

“When we last had foot-and-mouth two years ago and exports came to a standstill, it cost R4bn per annum,” Schutte says.

Work harder

At least 1.2-million SA households own livestock, which plays a key role in terms of income and food security.

“So we will have to work harder to get foot-and-mouth under control,” Schutte says, adding that the industry and government will have to work closely together to contain the spread of the disease.

The outbreak in 2019 resulted in the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the international body tasked with ensuring the sanitary safety of world trade in animals and their products, temporarily suspending SA’s disease-free zone status, thus limiting red meat exports. It can take a country five years or more to regain its full disease-free status.

SA has largely relied on bilateral agreements since then to export its produce, Schutte says, pointing out that the new outbreak is likely to cause more countries banning SA beef or red meat.

Roelie van Reenen, supply chain executive at Beefmaster Group, a major supplier and exporter of beef products, says the outbreak will have a knock-on effect on the entire beef supply chain.

“If it is not brought under control swiftly, the outbreak may spread to other provinces and areas, which could then result in the blanket ban of a gathering of animals [including] auctions. This would be a necessary step to curb the spread of the disease. 

Temporary ban

“If it spreads, the biggest impact of the crisis will be felt in SA — both at industry and consumer level. We would see an oversupply of beef in SA, which would then impact beef prices for all players,” Van Reenen says.

The government has said that as part of efforts to prevent the further spread of the disease, an immediate temporary ban on the movement of all cloven-hoofed animals, including livestock and game, had to be imposed in the affected districts in KwaZulu-Natal pending further investigations. 

Sandy La Marque, CEO of the KwaZulu-Natal agricultural union (Kwanulu) that represents the interest of commercial farmers and related agricultural organisations in the province, says movement restrictions of livestock and limitations of trade have a knock-on effect for the producers, employment and economic sustainability in the province and countrywide. 

She called on the government to apply all possible pressure and allocate resources as well as sufficient budget to speedily attend to the outbreak.

The OIE points out the complexity of containing foot-and-mouth. Each strain requires a specific vaccine to provide immunity to a vaccinated animal. Its prevention includes steps such as early detection as well as warning systems and the implementation of effective surveillance. 

Sihlobo said that biosecurity outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, swine fever or avian flu are a “major concern and the government and major role players should come together to find a strategy to confront and reduce some of these occurrences”.

The strategies for containment will differ according to the disease, but early warnings and a quick and efficient response strategy should be driving the fight against animal disease outbreaks, Sihlobo says.

The government and stakeholders must be proactive rather than reactive to limit biosecurity outbreaks. This will bring a degree of certainty to the broader agricultural sector, which has been the shining light of the economy amid the pandemic gloom.