With the blessing of the animal health division of the Department of Agriculture, the South African government lifted its self-imposed ban on ostrich meat exports on September 13 and senior manager: animal health Dr Mike Modisane was already in Brussels making a presentation to the relevant EU authorities. Generally, the industry expects the EU – which, according to the SA Ostrich Business Chamber, previously took 90% of SA’s ostrich meat – to lift the ban it imposed in August last year when the avian influenza (AI) epidemic struck. ‘The question is just when’, said SAOBC general manager Anton Kruger. ‘It could take days, weeks, even months.’

By the SAOBC’s estimate, the ban cost the industry R600 million and 4,000 jobs. ‘It was a severe blow but not a fatal one’, he said. ‘Averaged out, meat accounts for 30% of the industry’s turnover. Leather, which wasn’t affected by the ban, is still the biggest contributor.’ Leather was affected, however, by the loss of the birds culled and by the general slowdown in slaughter. Meat’s role in the industry, aside from its relatively recent emergence as a high-priced byproduct, are as a/the major contributor to cash flow, and as a counterbalance during leather’s cyclical highs and lows.

The epidemic slashed cash flow and coincided with a leather cyclical low. As one tanner put it: ‘The east is dead. The US is OK but very small. Europe is quieter than I’ve ever known it. I’m tired of getting on my knees to sell leather.’

The industry made major efforts to popularise ostrich meat on the South African market where, strangely enough, it was not a popular dish, and Kruger said considerable strides had been made. Nonetheless, the meat was being sold at relatively ‘distressed’ prices. Farmers weren’t losing that badly, selling for R13-R16/kg, as opposed to around R21/kg for export, but the abattoirs, Klein Karoo, Mosstrich, Swartland, Camdeboo, Grahamstown, Oryx and Gariep – the same companies which own the bigger tanneries – all incurred losses over the last nine months. The producers (the farmers) own, or have substantial shares in, the abattoirs, part of the reason the abattoirs were able to survive.

Whatever happens in Europe, the stockpile they built up during that period will not be covered by the unbanning, at least not as raw meat. Ostrich meat is particularly popular in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France (and in Switzerland, which isn’t part of the EU), and Kruger said while some other countries had tried to capture the market, ‘they just didn’t have enough meat to fill the gap. One concern is that after a break of more than a year, we will be reintroducing the product in Europe’, he said. ‘It’s not certain quite what prices will be like.’

As the epicentre of the epidemic, the Eastern Cape was hardest hit. Culling only took place there, and it cost the province 27,000 birds. Soon after the epidemic started, farmers, processors and tanners formed the East Cape Ostrich Forum (ECOF), first to monitor the campaign, later to begin planning the regional industry’s recovery.

Chairman Norman Bester, of Philippe Exotic Leathers, said: ‘We’ve been free of the disease since March 10, but progress since then has been very slow. Obviously the ban on meat exports has been the single most serious problem but the fact that so many breeding birds were culled has had, and will have, a long term effect. It will take at least two years for the industry in this region to recover and that depends on the profitability of the business in the future.’

He said farms in the region were re-stocking with day-old chicks from the Western Cape, following ‘very strict protocols worked out in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Health division’. Those protocols have mostly to do with being able to track birds, because the department never did uncover the source of the AI epidemic. The previously free – and frequent – movement between hatcheries, chick raising farms and feedlots, further complicated by the sale of birds between businesses, led to a complicated forward and backward tracking investigation, but ultimately, no answer. By Bester’s estimate, ‘less than half’ of former ostrich farmers have re-entered the business, though he wasn’t willing to estimate how many there were.

Both of the province’s two dedicated ostrich abattoirs, Grahamstown Ostrich Export Abattoir and the Camdeboo division of Camexo, had survived, ‘with difficulty’, with a small flow of surviving local birds, amounting to perhaps 50% of their normal kill. Part of their problem, he said, was that to diversify meant putting their ostrich meat export status at risk, unless they developed a separate line for other products. The tanneries, too, had survived. ‘In Philippe’s case, we were able to import some raw skins from Australia, which helped.’

A further function of ECOF is to support and aid in the development of various ‘black economic empowerment’ (BEE) projects linked to the ostrich industry. Most of these companies are, or will be, involved in chick raising.

Many miles west, in Wellington, the Roelcor/Swartland group reacted to the shortage of ostriches in different ways. ‘The abattoir fell back on venison’, said Swartland Tanning general manager Paul Jooste. ‘At the tannery, we’ve had a lot of contract work to supplement the supply of our own skins, which were down 50%. He said the meat side of the business had developed large export contracts, especially for Springbok, to the EU. Of the future for ostrich, he said: ‘If the EU opens the door, it will come at a good time, coinciding with the September-March slaughtering season. Prices to the producers will increase, keeping them in the business. As far as the skins are concerned, I hope those prices will increase, too, but I understand demand is a bit thin.’

One thing the AI epidemic showed the SA ostrich industry was how vulnerable it is to diseases of this nature. Coupled with the ongoing AI epidemic in the Far East (which is an entirely different strain of AI), perhaps there should be a different approach to epidemics, a search for a vaccine or a cure.

Lost in all the publicity surrounding the epidemic, it turns out that the local ostrich industry was considering the possibility of developing vaccines against AI just before the disease struck. ‘Obviously the epidemic gave that idea a boost’, said SA Ostrich Business Chamber GM Anton Kruger. ‘In August this year, the Onderstepoort Veterinary Faculty of the University of Pretoria started a research project into the behaviour of the H5N2 AI virus in ostriches. Their starting point was that the virus might behave very differently in a 100kg ostrich than it does in a 1kg chicken, which is where all research into this virus has so far been done. Depending on the outcome of that project, it will be decided whether a vaccine is a viable option. It will take about a year to complete that research.’