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Salmonella scare: why SA government must stop Brazil chicken imports now

Statement by Francois Baird, founder of FairPlay

Brazil’s food producers keep finding themselves in the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Last week, a major Brazilian producer recalled more than 450 tons of chicken because of potential salmonella contamination. This new food safety scandal underlines why the South African government has to follow international example and ban Brazilian chicken imports until all producers there can meet international health standards.

This is what other countries have done after finding unsafe or contaminated meat or questionable practices, and as Brazil’s producers evaded or failed to comply with food safety regulations.

It’s a major concern for South Africa, which imports hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken from Brazil every year. Brazilian imports have risen significantly in recent years as their producers target our market with predatory imports designed to put local producers out of business and kill local jobs. Brazil now accounts for more than 60% of South Africa’s chicken imports.

The South African government has good reason to question to safety of these imports. Salmonella causes food poisoning, which is often mild but can be fatal, particularly for the young and the elderly.

The recall is a relatively small volume from only one producer, but it indicates continuing food safety problems at Brazilian chicken plants. The EU has banned imports from 20 Brazilian producers because of salmonella contamination, and Saudi Arabia – Brazil’s biggest single market – has blocked five producers for “technical” reasons which may well be salmonella related.

The Saudi and EU actions to protect their consumers against potential food safety risks from Brazilian poultry imports will lead to justifiable public concern that similar action is not being taken here. South Africa knows from the listeriosis crisis, which killed 200 people, how quickly food poisoning can spread. We do not need a salmonella food-poisoning crisis.

The massive volume of Brazilian chicken imports, combined with the atrocious food-safety record of that country’s meat producers, constitute a national food-safety risk.

The 2018 import figures, produced by the SA Poultry Association from official statistics, show that Brazil’s poultry exports to South Africa have risen from 241 180 tons in 2015 to 348 155 tons in 2018, when they comprised 61,5% of our country’s poultry imports.

While Brazil’s chicken exports have been climbing, so have their food-safety scandals. It is only two years since the “Weak Flesh” scandal that exposed fraud and corruption at major beef and chicken producers, amid allegations that producers had either evaded food-safety checks or bribed officials to falsify results.

As a result, countries around the world banned Brazilian imports, sometimes temporarily. The EU has not yet lifted its ban, based on salmonella fears, and Saudi Arabia this year imposed a new one.

Now we have a new salmonella scandal at a Brazilian chicken producer. The risk is now so great that sampling or random testing of import consignments is not enough. The government must protect consumers by imposing a health ban on all Brazilian chicken imports until Brazil fixes its food safety problems.

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