WORKERS prepare poultry at the meat-packing company JBS, in Lapa, in the Brazilian state of Parana. Eraldo Peres AP
DURBAN - The South African Poultry Association has called for a ban on Brazilian chicken imports following a salmonella scare that led to a recall of 500 tons of product globally.

Broiler organisation SA Poultry Association’s (Sapa) general manager Izaak Breitenbach has written to the Minister of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana, on behalf of the local poultry industry “requesting action” against Brazilian imports.

However, consumer groups and meat importers have lambasted the move as an “opportunistic” bid to protect the interests of local producers.

Breitenbach said the government and consumers should pay close attention to the “continuing food safety scandals” in Brazil’s meat industry.

“Last Wednesday, one of Brazil’s biggest food producers, BFR SA, recalled almost 500 tons of chicken due to salmonella contamination worries.

“Brazil is the major source of the chicken imported into this country and thousands of tons of chicken pieces come into South Africa every month. Yet the compliance of Brazil’s poultry producers with food safety standards has been erratic and at times scandalous,” Breitenbach said.

He said the recalled batch of chicken had been destined for local and export markets.

“The European Union has already banned 20 Brazilian producers because of salmonella and, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia blocked five producers, presumably for the same reason,” he said.

Brazil was the subject of an international food safety scandal in 2017, when Brazilian authorities’ “Weak Flesh” investigation uncovered fraud and corruption in the beef and chicken industries. Producers had either avoided health inspections or paid officials to alter unfavourable results.

Breitenbach said the EU had imposed a ban on Brazilian imports two months ago after they visited poultry facilities and allegedly discovered unacceptable levels of hygiene.

“It is clear from the EU and Saudi actions, and last week’s recall, that the problems in Brazil’s chicken industry have not gone away. An additional cause for concern is that, due to a lack of resources, our health inspections are not as strict as they could be - not every container that arrives in our ports can be tested - nor are the regulations relating to the thawing and repacking of imported bulk consignments,” he said.

Breitenbach said SA should impose a ban on poultry imports in the interests of consumer safety until producers could prove that their products have been clear of salmonella for six months, in line with World Trade Organisation rules.

“Salmonella food poisoning is not pleasant and can sometimes be fatal. Some 200 people died in the listeriosis outbreak last year. We should do everything we can to prevent a salmonella crisis,” Breitenbach said.

However, Association of Meat Importers and Exporters (Amie) Paul Matthews said the call for the ban was not necessary and came at a convenient time for Sapa, which had just filed a request with the International Trade Administration Commission (Itac) for an increase in duty on Brazilian and US chicken imports of 82%.

However, Breitenbach said the salmonella outbreak was not related to the tariff application made last year.

Matthews said the call was “part of the strategy to make hype of imports”.

“We are in that phase at the moment where we are both submitting papers to Itac. From Amie’s perspective, if you look at the controls, we have to go through with Daff (Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries); at the port of entry for pork or chicken, we are tested like you have no idea,” Matthews said.

He said the Daff had been “sampling almost every single container” since July last year, which had lead to backlogs in the ports.

“Food safety is our priority. There is nothing that will come through these borders that would be product infected with anything. If anything is found, it will be turned around and sent back to the country of origin or destroyed straight away,” he said.

According to Amie, South Africa’s total imports of bone-in chicken was 248000 tons in 2018, of which 123000 tons came from Brazil. Boneless chicken imports totalled 20000, of which 14000 emanated from Brazil, while the bulk of mechanically deboned chicken, 143000 tonnes, was also imported from Brazil.

SA National Consumer Union vice-chairman Clif Johnston said the move was “opportunistic and aimed at protecting the local chicken industry against cheaper imports”.

“Imports are important to consumers, especially those on tight budgets, as they help keep the prices of local chicken in check. The call blames Brazilian food hygiene in general, but fails to indicate whether any of the producers implicated in the EU and Saudi bans or the recent product recall actually supply chicken to South Africa,” Johnston said.

He said that to associate the salmonella risk in raw meat with the recent listeriosis outbreak was “simply scaremongering”.

“Salmonella is neutralised by cooking. If consumers follow basic hygiene, as they should, when preparing and cooking chicken, it poses little or no risk even if contaminated with salmonella,” he said.

“The listeriosis outbreak occurred from contaminated processed meat, which was consumed without further cooking. Salmonella can pose a similar risk in food such as tinned tuna or salmon, which is also not cooked by the consumer, but that is not the case with chicken.”

Daff spokesperson Khaye Nkwanyana said the department had received the letter and the department’s scientists were investigating the matter at all levels, including retail.

“We need to look at all aspects and (we) will issue a statement in due course,” Nkwanyana said.

- THE MERCURY