17/08/2015. U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard during the launch of the Love not Hate Progremme at Hatfield. Picture: Oupa Mokoena

Pretoria – South Africa’s trade and industry, health and agriculture ministers met United States ambassador Patrick Gaspard on Tuesday in an “extra time” effort to try to resolve a persistent trade dispute and so avoid South Africa losing lucrative duty-free entry into the US market for South African agricultural exports.

But it seemed unlikely that the meeting would have been in time to prevent US President Barack Obama announcing that the US would immediately suspend South Africa’s benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

Obama was expected to do that at any moment – possible as early as later today – after US and South African officials failed during last-ditch New Year’s eve negotiations to reach agreement on allowing US chicken and beef imports into South Africa. They and US pork imports have been barred for many years because of South African anti-dumping and health restrictions.

Obama had announced on November 5 that he would suspend Agoa duty-free access to the US market for South African agricultural products if the US meat products were not allowed into South Africa by November 4.

But the South African government would not budge, citing continuing health concerns.

After resolving a dispute about US avian flu which had been blocking US chicken imports, Pretoria raised new concerns about US poultry being infected by salmonella.

The US insists that these concerns are “unscientific” and that salmonella is destroyed merely by cooking.

South Africa also raised new concerns about US beef being infected by mad-cow disease.

Officials said that the US herd includes animals imported from Canada and Mexico and that it was not convinced these were free from the disease.

According to media reports, Pretoria is demanding that the US quarantine these imported cattle. The US appears to be resisting that demand.

South African health concerns about US pork appear to have been resolved and only require the formality of signing health certificates.

US officials profess to be mystified by the South African health concerns. They say that they export chicken to about 160 countries without any health problems and also export beef and pork to about the same number.

They noted today that the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Food Security Index had ranked the US first among 109 countries assessed, with a mark of 89%.

They compared that with Brazil – a major exporter of chicken to South Africa – which ranked only 36th with a mark of 67,4%. And the index ranked South Africa itself 41st with a mark of 64,5%.

South Africa’s health concerns have jeopardised billion of rands of exports of agricultural products to the US, mainly citrus, wine and macadamia nuts.

Last year the country exported R2 billion worth of agricultural goods in the first ten months.

But on Monday health minister Aaron Motsoaledi defended South Africa’s position, saying that no government could expose its citizens to disease.

Trade and industry minister Rob Davies said the effort to prevent the country losing its AGOA benefits was in “extra time”, while adding that his government did not know when the US would blow the whistle.

On Tuesday, these two ministers and agriculture minister Senzeni Zokwana met Gaspard to try to save its benefits. But official sources said the meeting was likely to be too late to prevent Obama suspending the Agoa duty-free access.

If Obama does announce the suspension it will come into effect immediately, affecting also exports already on the water.

But US officials have also said that if the meat disputes are resolved after the suspension, South Africa’s Agoa benefits would immediately be restored.