The ostrich industry is not counting on shaking off the bird flu epidemic that has threatened to put it out of business any time soon and Grahamstown-based operations are among those that may benefit from alternative strategies in the pipeline.
OSTRICH... Ostrich skin being prepared for export at the Ostrimark SA tannery in GrahamstownPhoto: Abongile Sipondo
Three ostrich-related businesses in Grahamstown have closed since avian flu hit the country last April, leaving only the local Ostrimark SA tannery open.
Impec Ostrich, Grahamstown Ostrich Abattoir and Phillipe Ostrich were casualties of the bird flu epidemic.
In the rest of SA, nearly 50 000 ostriches across 43 farms have been culled since the flu outbreak, according to an article
on the Bloomberg news site.
The article also says approximately 20 000 jobs in the industry are still at risk.
Since the government banned all fresh ostrich meat exports last April, farmers have been trying to increase local sales.
But Hein Jonker, financial director of Oudtshoorn-based Ostrimark SA, said South Africans aren't taking the bait, which makes the industry feel the pinch even more.
OSTRICH... staff prepare ostrich skins at the Ostrimark SA tannery. They are among 20 staff members employed by the tannery.Photo: Abongile Sipondo
“It is important to get South African consumers to know and like the product.
As an industry we need to grow our ostrich meat market in South Africa,” Jonker said.
Of the three big supermarkets in Grahamstown, only Pick n Pay stocks pre-packed ostrich meat in the forms of steaks, goulash and sausages.
However, they source the meat from Oudtshoorn and not local farmers.
According to local Pick n Pay store manager Werner Pienaar, this is because a supplier has to go undergo a rigorous safety audit before they get to supply their meat to the huge supermarket chain.
“It seems none of the local farmers is on our database of suppliers,” Pienaar said.
In spite of the challenges affecting the industry, Ostrimark SA’s business is still going strong.
“Despite the avian flu crisis, we were still able to maintain our production levels,” Jonker said.
Manager of Ostrimark SA’s Grahamstown-based tannery, Justin du Plooy, added that in the two years since they opened they have increased their staff count from two to about 20.
But it's not all doom and gloom for the ostrich industry, according to acting CEO of the SA Ostrich Business Chamber, Piet Kleyn.
He told italGrocott's Mail/ital that in the past year ostrich leather and feather prices have gone up - a slight consolation for farmers who can no longer export their birds' meat.
He also said that some meat can be exported, but only if it has undergone a special heat treatment. Like everyone, Kleyn is in the dark about when the ban will be lifted.
The Veterinary Services [in the department of agriculture] have a task team looking to lift the ban in isolated areas, but this is still being negotiated and must be approved by the European Union, he said.
Kleyn also wanted to dispel a myth that avian flu is highly dangerous, and said that in over 100 years of farming ostriches in South Africa he has never heard of it spreading to poultry or humans.
In the past year outbreaks within ostriches in the Eastern Cape have been limited, Kleyn said.
He described the nationwide outbreaks as periodic and linked them to wild water birds, especially Egyptian geese, who carry the virus.
He said ostriches that are farmed out in the open interact with the wild birds and it is difficult to keep them apart.
Until the virus is under control the export ban will not be lifted, but Kleyn said that the Veterinary Services task team is looking for alternative strategies in case the country can't shake off the bird flu.
Farmers will also need to comply with certain regulations to improve the biosecurity of their farms.
These measures include giving the birds chlorinated drinking water and raising water and food troughs off the ground to deter wild water birds.
Another alternative strategy would be to find ways to immunise the birds, Kleyn said.