Avian flu batters ostrich industry: thousands of South African ostriches have been destroyed in the wake of an avian flu outbreak. A one billion rand industry has ground to a halt as all exports of ostrich meat have been suspended. Tom Nevin explains the economic consequences.

Author:Nevin, Tom
Position:South Africa - Related article: Avian flu--what it is
 
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The economy of the Eastern Cape, South Africa's poorest province, will take a R500m hit if an avian flu initiated ban on exports of ostrich products extends to the end of the year. More greatly at stake is a R1bn-plus ostrich industry centred in the arid inland regions of the economically struggling province.

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Desperate to protect their international reputation, ostrich farmers have put up barriers to the contagious disease, and imposed strict quarantine and other dire measures aimed at stemming the epidemic. The local ostrich industry is worth about R1.26bn a year. Leather accounts for 65% of the value and meat about 30%, some 97% of which is exported. Road blocks were also set up to stop the movement of live birds and ostrich meat between the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. "Once the affected farms were discovered, the region was immediately placed under quarantine," says ostrich rancher and distributor Jan Greyling. "It was the South African Department of Agriculture (SADA) that alerted the European Union, and then the ban was formalised."

SADA has confirmed that it will compensate farmers whose livestock has been culled. Taking the best case scenario of 30,000 slaughtered ostriches, at an average value of R1,500 a bird, the department will face a bill of R45m, plus ancillary costs of manpower, logistics and medicines. A spokesman for the South Africa's Ostrich Business Chamber, Anton Kruger, says the outbreak is costing the industry about R30m a month.

Marco Romito, a veterinarian at the government-run Onder-stepoort Veterinary Institute near Pretoria, reports that studies on the H5N2 strain show it is not as dangerous as previously thought. At this stage, he says, it seems the virus is not well adapted to chickens, but he is concerned that "the virus may mutate to be able to infect chickens."

A spokesman for the Poultry Association of South Africa, Zack Coetzee, reckons the national chicken industry contributes some R15bn a year to the economy, producing 780m broilers annually. The industry exports just 1% of its production, meaning the ban's impact of R12.5m is relatively small.

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