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Ruffled feathers over US chicken imports

Frozen-Chicken-FrenzyWhen it comes to the animal kingdom hierarchy, the chicken is way down on the scale. However, this humble bird is capturing as many current headlines as the endangered rhino and controversial canned lion hunting.

The reason? Simply put, the USA wants us to take all the chicken they don’t eat, and we are saying ‘No thanks’.

Now in polite society, that would be the end of the matter. But there’s a lot of money and politics involved here, so the arguments are prolonged and heated.

It all centres around the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which is an American initiative, designed to stimulate economic growth on the African continent. It was signed into law by President Bush after years of deliberation, and it expires in September of this year. AGOA is a unilateral offer from the US that promotes duty-free access by approved African countries on thousands of items or products, thus motivating trade between the continents. To date it has worked well, with benefits accrued on both sides. South Africa in particular has benefitted substantially from AGOA, with as much as 90% of SA’s exports – mainly agricultural and auto industry products – landing in the US duty-free.

Thus the concern about the renewal or revision of AGOA being approved by President Obama before the expiry date, and whether or not the agreement is prominent enough to be discussed in time in Congress, given the importance of other legislations on the table. Added to this is the substantially high level of trade benefits enjoyed by South Africa, which is being increasingly viewed as a highly developed economy, and not the struggling African nation in need of vital assistance envisaged in the initial agreement.

And now the renewal of an agreement that has brought enormous benefits to this country has all boiled down to the humble chicken and a battle between two poultry industries. And if this issue is not solved hastily, we will be in danger of losing our lucrative participation in the AGOA agreement, particularly as two of the Senators that would be involved in the renewal discussions represent the largest poultry-producing states in the US. At risk are the thousands of jobs created and sustained in the industries producing the approved trade products.

On the one hand, the US poultry industry feels that we are not allowing enough of their imports into our country, while our Poultry Association doesn’t want to lose sales to what would be a cheaper alternative to the consumer. Interestingly enough, Americans tend to eat only chicken breasts, so they want to export the rest of the chicken elsewhere as nuggets, packs – and the ‘walkie talkies’ popular in our townships.

Since 2000, South Africa has imposed a high ‘anti-dumping’ tariff on certain parts of a chicken carcass, or products derived from these.

Our hopes are pinned on a meeting in Paris in June between the South African Poultry Association and the US Poultry and Egg Export Council.

So just how healthy is the humble chicken to the South African consumer?

If you frequent fast-food outlets specialising in chicken, that’s debatable…….

According to Fin24 in December last year, ‘South Africans consumed 1.9 million tons of chicken in 2012, more than any other African country. The market is growing 8.5% a year, due mainly to the expanding black middle-class, according to research by Pretoria University, making it an increasingly attractive market for foreign exporters.’

Chicken has been a large part of the black population’s diet, but health issues and burgeoning household costs are making it an attractive, healthy alternative to red meat in other population groups. Given the high level of protein in the meat, in addition to the very low levels of fat and the variety of dishes a chicken can be used for, chicken is a cost-effective way of feeding family in today’s economy.

Even in the US, which until recently has been a predominantly pork and beef consumer, poultry is gaining hold. In ‘Workblog’ July 14 2014, Robert Ferdman speaks of ‘The coming global domination of chicken’, citing the growing costs of other meats as one reason. He also quotes a study by the Environmental Working Group that states ‘the poultry industry is much kinder to the environment than that of most every other kind of meat. Per kilogram consumed, chicken’s carbon footprint is roughly half that of pork, a quarter that of beef, and nearly a seventh that of lamb.’

However, the South African consumer has to be wary of ‘other’ imports from Brazil and China, whose production standards are particularly low, including the way the birds are slaughtered. “Buy and eat local – responsibly” is the message from the National Council of SPCAs. In a 2013 Fin24 article, Farm Animal Protection Unit Manager, Andries Venter stated that South Africa has better controls in terms of welfare measures and calls upon people to ask where the chicken they are buying comes from.
One concern raised by this writer is the fact that the US is considering allowing chicken products from China, providing the chickens were slaughtered in the US or Canada. Willy Blackmore, TakePart’s Food Editor, feels this would pave the way for the US to import whole chickens from China. Given that China has a notoriously low standard when it comes to the slaughter of poultry, and hygiene in general is a major concern, and given that the US wants to dump the parts of the chicken they don’t eat into South Africa, are we going to end up eating Chinese chicken?

That would be a huge threat to our health.

Where does that leave us?

At the mercy of politicians, that’s where! And where money is concerned, consumer health is a very low consideration.

All we can do to protect ourselves is:

  • Read the information on the packs of chicken that you buy (take along a magnifying glass!)
  • Ensure you buy locally-produced chicken. Our health industry standards – although not perfect – are much higher than many other poultry-producing countries and are improving all the time
  • Take advantage of the special offers on sale in many supermarkets and freeze the chicken pieces as soon as you get home. The current load-shedding is a risk to frozen food, and if a prolonged shedding de-frosts your chicken, do not re-freeze. Rather cook it all and then re-freeze

And maybe cross your fingers that the US/SA ‘dumping’ issue is resolved satisfactorily by politicians behaving like adults, so that jobs are not lost.

We leave the last word to the US Environmental Working Group: “If every American stopped eating beef tomorrow and started eating chicken instead, that would be the equivalent of taking 26 million cars off the road.”

What better reason could we have in South Africa to eat chicken?

Worthy of note is that late last year, the US proposed US foodstuffs such as chemically-treated meat that Washington hopes to be able to sell to Europe under a planned multi-billion dollar transatlantic trade deal which would offer the EU the chance to sell more of its luxury cars, trains and chemicals in the United States, a very attractive prospect for an economy whose slow recovery from the euro zone debt crisis is faltering. There is strong opposition in a number of EU member states, including France and Germany, to GM foods, growth hormones in cattle and to chicken that is disinfected with chemicals. Europe uses antibiotics. Interesting!

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