Tough trade talks ahead as Brazil plans for bird flu threat

Brazil, the world’s largest chicken exporter and the source of most of South Africa’s chicken imports, is trying to avoid being cut off, if and when bird flu breaks out in that country.

Brazil is ringed by countries where bird flu has spread and, as the virus is carried by wild birds, it may be only a matter of time before Brazil, too, is affected by the disease. The SA Poultry Association (SAPA) reports that Brazil is already making plans to deal with that eventuality.

South Africa has applied complete poultry import bans on countries that have reported bird flu outbreaks. That, until recently, has included all 10 of the European countries licensed to export to South Africa, and Argentina has just been added to the list.

Now Brazil and Argentina are seeking to negotiate exemptions from the ban, particularly for mechanically deboned meat (MDM) – a paste used in the manufacture of processed meats. MDM is by far the largest component of chicken imports from Brazil and is a huge revenue earner for Brazilian producers – in 2022, MDM accounted for R1.9 billion of the R3.3bn poultry imports from Brazil.

All of that is at risk because of spreading bird flu. That is why Brazil and Argentina have approached the South African Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) to see what they can negotiate. SAPA says that local poultry producers and importers have been party to the discussions.

A proposal that MDM be cooked prior to export was rejected, and the suggestion that imports of raw MDM be allowed subject to a promise that it would be cooked was viewed as too risky.

That leaves the possibilities of heat treatment before export, or permission to export chicken products from geographic compartments that are free of bird flu. These issues will be considered in the next round of negotiations.

While the overriding considerations are food safety and the need to prevent the virus being imported, South African negotiators will be aware of the wider trade implications. Any agreements they reach with Brazil will set a precedent, and are likely to be followed by similar applications from other countries subject to bird flu bans.

That is going to ensure a lot of interest in the outcome.