The ban on ostrich meat exports may be nearing an end, a year after the first confirmed reports of an outbreak of Avian Influenza on farms in the Eastern Cape. The national Department of Agriculture expects its programme of testing and retesting ostrich blood samples and subsequent analysis, to be complete by mid-August, after which it will inform the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE or Office International des Épizooties) whether it can declare South Africa or part thereof free of two subtypes of the Influenza A virus, H5 and H7.

‘At the moment, things are looking very positive’, said Dr Mike Modisane, senior manager: animal health in the Department of Agriculture. ‘Thus far there has been no evidence of a new outbreak of H5 or any sign of H7.’ A delegation led by Modisane, with representatives from the Western Cape and Gauteng provincial departments of agriculture, met EU officials twice in May. The second meeting coincided with, and was held at, a general session of the OIE in Paris. ‘During the course of that session, the OIE resolved that for a country to be declared free of notifiable AI, it had to be certified free of both the H5 and H7 subtypes.

The outbreak in the Eastern Cape was identified as H5N2 and ‘it was easy to declare the Eastern Cape an infected area, because we had the clinical signs and we could isolate the virus’, Modisane said. ‘A strategy of culling was implemented with backward and forward tracing of the movements of ostriches which made it possible to identify birds which could have been exposed to the virus.’

Later, evidence of antibodies found in ostriches in the Western Cape posed a few problems as there were no sick or dying birds, and no virus could be isolated. The department opted to re-test some samples and collecting more samples from some parts of the country, to test for the H7 and the H5 subtypes. There was obviously tension between the department and the industry but Modisane said he had been ‘very impressed with the understanding of the industry’ over the past few months.

‘In a few weeks, we’ll know whether all our plans are coming together’, he said. ‘You have to remember that the department had two other considerations to bear in mind during the outbreak of Avian Influenza – public health, which is proven to be a big concern especially following the cases of AI in humans in the East, and the very real danger of AI spilling over into the poultry industry, in SA and in neighbouring countries. That would have been an absolute disaster, because poultry is the main source of protein in southern Africa.’

When the testing and analysis are complete, Modisane said officials would make one of three recommendations to the Minister: if there is still evidence of AI, either ‘leaving things the way they are with the self imposed ban’, or – Modisane’s preference – ‘compartmentalising/regionalizing’ the country’s industry, by province or by farm, and if there is no evidence of AI, lifting SA’s self-imposed ban on ostrich meat exports and asking the EU to follow suit.

‘We believe that for most members of industry, declaring the country free is something worth celebrating’, he said. ‘We’ve been under tremendous pressure.’ According to SA Ostrich Business Chamber manager Anton Kruger, ostrich meat accounts for a relatively modest 30% of the value of the bird to farmers, while skins are worth 60% and feathers the balance, ‘so everyone is still in business’, he said.

Nonetheless, meat is regarded as a vital part of the industry’s cash flow – and with the leather prices ‘being subjected to supply and demand’, as the SAOBC puts it, meat had been both its growth area and its star performer. ‘One of the primary aims of Ostrivision (the industry’s strategic repositioning project) is to enhance generic marketing of ostrich products, based on an integrated supply-and-demand chain’, Kruger said.

Kruger said impressive strides had been made in marketing the meat locally. Domestic consumption of ostrich meat has rocketed from about 5% to about 25% of the meat produced since September last year and not necessarily at distressed prices. ‘According to statistics published by the agricultural press, farmers are fetching between R13 and R19/kg, as opposed to export prices of around R21/kg when the export ban was introduced in August last year’, he said. ‘We have been able to show local consumers that ostrich meat is healthy, with almost no fat and cholesterol, and all the meat being processed at the export registered ostrich abattoirs in SA is top quality. The meat adheres to the strictest international hygiene and quality standards.’

However, the industry is now sitting on a growing stockpile of frozen meat, awaiting successful negotiations between the SA government and the EU.