Opinion: Chicken industry rescue plan is already behind schedule

The poultry sector master plan is only a few months old, but already it is falling behind schedule.

This means continued uncertainty for thousands of chicken industry jobs, and further delays in stimulatory measures which will lead to industry expansion and job creation.

In a country where millions upon millions of people can’t find jobs, this is unforgivable.

The master plan – essentially a comprehensive action plan to safeguard the country’s food security and protect one of South Africa’s key strategic industries from dumping and predatory trade – was agreed in November last year by government, the poultry industry, unions, and chicken importers and exporters.

This rescue plan is predicated on tariffs and other measures to curb the flood of dumped and predatory imports which has plunged the industry into crisis and cost thousands of jobs. A stabilised industry will provide the basis for a variety of measures to encourage investment and job creation, especially in resource-poor areas where jobs are most needed, and to service expanded local and export markets.

It’s an ambitious programme that recognised the scale and immediacy of the crisis facing the industry and established ambitious targets and deadlines. Unfortunately, it looks like many of the first-phase deadlines are not going to be met and plans will have to be rescheduled.

There has been an unexplained delay in announcing higher tariffs on chicken imports from some countries, mainly Brazil. It was not until more than a year after the tariff application was lodged that the government was ready to announce its decision. Not only is this is an unacceptable delay, but worse, nothing has happened. In November 2019, the master plan promised that tariff relief for the industry would come “soon”. The announcement of the details is still awaited.

President Ramaphosa promised on 13 February that the tariff decision would be announced “within two weeks”, but that promise has not been kept.

Failure to announce a tariff adjustment as promised fails the thousands of people whose jobs and livelihoods depend on this decision. It has become all too clear that the tariff-adjustment decision-making process is at best not fit for purpose, at worse not understood to be the priority action that it is by those government agencies tasked with its delivery.

Then there’s the implementation of the master plan. Most of the measures set out in the master plan are due to be completed by mid-2020, with a list of important deadlines to be met by the end of this month.

These include important food safety measures – a review of regulations to prevent the thawing and refreezing of imported chicken portions because of health risks involved, and a review of packaging and traceability regulations to ensure that all imports can be traced, and that producers meet required standards.

Traceability is crucial in the event of product contamination, and was shown in the 2018 listeriosis outbreak. Unfortunately for SA consumers, much of the imported frozen chicken offered for sale in SA does not meet the strict labelling requirements which apply to local chicken.

These reviews are supposed to be done by the end of March 2020, and there is no indication that progress is being made.

Running parallel to these food-safety improvements are supposed to be a variety of measures to promote chicken exports. State veterinary laboratories are due to be upgraded and staffed to enable the health certification required for raw meat exports, while cooked meat export opportunities will be explored and exploited.

Many of these plans, too, are due for completion by the end of this month, including export agreements and a “significant expansion” of some chicken exports. Again, there is no indication that the official machinery has sprung into action with any vigour.

The key to getting the master plan back on track is going to be the Poultry Sector Master Plan Council – an oversight body with responsibilities both for drawing up detailed implementation plans and seeing that they are adhered to.

That council is due to have its first meeting by the end of March, and then meet every quarter for the rest of this year. The Minister of Trade and Industry, Ebrahim Patel, has yet to announce who has been appointed to the council, or where and when it will have its first meeting.

The master plan identifies the council as crucial to the plan’s success, which will require “sustained implementation and ongoing commitment by a variety of players”.

Equally crucial therefore will be people appointed to the council. It will be headed by Mr Patel and the Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Ms Thoko Didiza, and will include representatives from poultry producers, poultry importers and exporters, trade unions, government departments, including the Department of Health, and other state institutions such as the revenue service SARS, the Industrial Development Bank and the Land Bank.

It is they who will have to develop concrete action plans to underpin each of the master plan’s five pillars, monitor their implementation and identify any additional measures needed. Their functions also include an analysis of chicken imports and exports and to advise on measures to realise the master plan’s “vision and commitments”.

It’s going to be a weighty task and there are only a few weeks before the council is due to get started. Workers whose jobs are at risk, and unemployed people hoping for work in an expanding chicken industry have much riding on the quality of the people appointed to the council and the dedication and commitment they devote to their duties.

Any dithering, or bureaucratic delays from officials tasked with drafting and overseeing the implementation of tasks, will not only result in further setbacks. They will undermine the credibility of the master plan itself.

ARTICLE BY  Francois Baird • Baird is The founder of the FairPlay movement.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Mzansi Agriculture Talk.

Opinion: Chicken industry rescue plan is already behind schedule
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