By Andrew Field
Zimbabwe’s poultry industry is on the brink of a shortage with the recent banning of dressed poultry imports. In an emotional and very public appeal, poultry producers sought to effect a protectionist ban on imports. They had panicked with growing meat stocks and offered a series of deceptions with which, some consider, the Zimbabwe Poultry Association (ZPA) had sullied itself taking issue with brining and genetically modified organisms (GMO), accusing importers of defrauding the Zimbabwean consumer.
The issue of brining has long been an issue for ZPA members, yet this is an internationally acceptable practice. Brining is a flavouring process adopted by some local abattoirs. One of the tell tale signs of excess brining is water retention. The ZPA argued that poultry meat imports were high in water content, but there are internationally acceptable levels for brining, also lawfully regulated in Zimbabwe. The Department of Veterinary Services was quick to address false claims of over-brining against one external producer. Chicken meat is naturally hygroscopic and during a series of tests, conducted privately, it was the locally branded chicken that contained the higher water content.
One leading abattoir in Zimbabwe is contemplating the importation of brining equipment and the other has already adopted this practice, making thorough folly of the ZPA issue on brining. Local producers still have the awful habit of stuffing a giblet bag into the carcass of whole birds and charging higher meat prices for offal content. Offal imports have been banned for some time, so the imported product actually represents much greater value for money.
The use of genetically modified grains in livestock production is naturally a highly emotive issue, which the ZPA used to play upon the fears of consumers. Imports were referred to, quite mischievously, as ‘GMO chicken’ by one local executive, yet there is no evidence to support the theory that imported chicken uses GMO cereals in its feed cycle, just speculative probability. One issue needs to be made absolutely clear to worried consumers. No imported chicken has been genetically modified. When GMO maize is used to feed broiler or layer chickens, this does not change the genetic structure of the end product.
The spinners of the GMO argument need to be very careful in their assumptions. The entire commerce of food imports would be in jeopardy, opening to question the type of grains used to feed livestock supplying all dairy and meat imports, to manufacture breakfast cereals, maize meals and bread flours, not to mention the origins of grains used for feeding various sources of mechanically deboned meats used in the local meat processing industry.
If the GMO card is played across the spectrum of all foods, and were it possibly to police this, the reality is that Zimbabwe’s Supermarket shelves would be empty once more. Besides, local livestock producers are in fact being a touch insincere. Prior to ‘exposing’ the GMO issue, producers had approached the Ministry of Agriculture to import cheaper genetically modified grains for stock feed. This had been declined, but appeals are presently ongoing.
Many of these same producers had also scrambled to secure import permits for the same ‘over-brined’ and ‘GMO poultry meat’, before a change of face. Three large poultry producers have recently been granted permission to import hatching eggs to sustain demand, which is encouraging, but these consignments originate from the same ‘GMO chickens’ as the banned meat imports, and from a Rift Valley Fever quarantined area, South Africa. This strikes of double standards.
Quite surprisingly, some producers thought imports would destroy the local industry, yet still managed to increase production levels in the face of ‘threatening’ imports from 320 metric tonnes a month in January 2009 to 1,670 metric tonnes in March 2010. This trend hit a plateau when the Ministry of Agriculture banned poultry imports for three months in early April, 2010. Of course, Zimbabweans are well versed in the economics of limiting commodity supplies.
Animal protein availability in Zimbabwe is now approaching crucially low volumes. Not only have retail prices risen in the absence of competition, but chicken meat is becoming short and, as expected, a small illicit market in imports has sprung up. Despite an apparent seasonal decline in off take, Zimbabwe’s chicken producers are now far off the mark in servicing demand. Estimates out of the industry would suggest production levels are currently averaging 1,900 tonnes per month versus consumer demand of near 3,500 tonnes per month in the formal market.
Producers are thus caught between their inability to sustain supply, and import substitution being more competitive that perhaps they would like. There are other issues. Producers have not responded to the local consumer market trend towards individually quick frozen (IQF) products, commonly known as mixed portions in the local industry and away from whole birds. This follows the market trend in both South Africa and Namibia. Local producers are still locked into producing frozen dressed whole birds, and much of their earlier stockpile (estimated at 1,400 metric tonnes in February/March) comprised whole birds, in lesser demand.
Many producers have run out of product for the market. Customers and distributors have been denied product from most of the smaller abattoirs. The two leading abattoirs seem to be servicing some demand but not fulfilling their markets, one of them being heavily over-priced.
Producers have got what they really wanted, the ability to limit the market and sell their production at considerably higher prices in the absence of import competition. This has rebounded on the consumer, somewhat, since a shortage is now apparent. Yet the competition generated by imports on the local market seems to have rung a few alarm bells within the producer camp. They have been compelled to react and look inward at their production costs and to meeting demand, which can only be good for Zimbabwe’s consumers. Local abattoirs will not, however, fill the expected void likely to be sustained by imports within the foreseeable future. Clearly there is place for controlled imports without risk to local production.
By Andrew Field