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Looming food crisis – true or false?

The destruction of parts of the food processing and distribution chain in this month’s violence in South Africa raised an interesting issue – should food safety be sacrificed to ensure food security?

Chicken importers seem to think so, judging by an appeal they have made for a temporary relaxation of inspections and other regulations to ensure rapid clearance of containers at Durban harbour.

Their appeal is based on the premise that a “national food crisis” is looming because damage to inspection facilities, cold stores and other infrastructure during the recent riots is holding up containers of meat imports.

If there really is a looming food crisis, and those supplies are desperately needed, then the request is reasonable, and can be considered under strict conditions. The problem is that the importers are pleading their own case, and they have been known to exaggerate before, such as in predictions of exaggerated food price increases.

Soon after their plea was published, Transnet said port operations at Durban were returning to normal, and backlogs were being cleared. Since then it has had to declare force majeure – an event beyond their control that has disrupted operations – because a cyberattack has affected operations at all of the country’s ports. The impact of that has yet to become clear.

Much of the delayed imports will be mechanically deboned meat, or MDM, used in the production of processed meats such as polony and viennas. A journalist following up on the importer’s statement reported that there would be no shortage of polony and viennas, although some brands may be scarce for a while.

Food safety is a serious issue, and import controls are not to be discarded lightly. Brazil’s meat and poultry producers have been involved in a series of food safety scandals, and continued vigilance is warranted through port inspections.

FairPlay’s position is that there should be an urgent investigation into whether or not port delays may cause a food crisis, and if so the steps needed to avert it while maintaining food safety. 

Establish the facts, then decide on actions.

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