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Meat safety and disease control programmes in perspective

By Dr Heinz Bodenstein (CSVet)
Currently the pig industry in South Africa is experiencing difficult times. High feed prices and low meat prices make that most farmers are currently on or below the break even line. It is in times like these that farmers start to cut expenses were they can.
Farmers then start to question expenses such as quality assurance and disease control programmes. It is thus important to understand why these programmes exist. Quality assurance is done for food safety reasons. Disease controling programmes are aimed at controlled diseases such as PRRS (Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome), CSF (Classical Swine Fever), ASF (African swine fever) and FMD (Foot and Mouth Disease).
Food safety
Food quality and safety have been very topical over the last few years in public debate, food policy, industry and research (Grunert, 2005). A variety of food scares have directed the public attention towards food safety.
These include the European Commission’s ban on British beef in 1996 because of BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), Belgian contamination of animal feed with dioxins in 1999 and Belgian pig feed contamination with medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) in 2002 (Valeeva, et al., 2004). The result is that a lot of countries, especially the EU have placed a lot of political focus on food safety with the EU white paper on food safety and the foundation of the European Food safety Agency as visible outcomes (Grunert, 2005).
The general public has also been more interested in the way that food is produced, both at farm and processing level. Topics such as organic production, welfare and genetically modified organisms especially, are causing interest among consumers lately.
Consumers have become more demanding, more critical and more fragmented in their food choices. The result is that there will be more quality differentiation of food products in order to satisfy consumers. (Grunert, 2005)
Even though there is more interest in the way that food is produced there is unfortunately a lack of understanding of the hazards and associated risks among consumers. Some display behaviour patterns that appear irrational, illogical and/or inconsistent with excerpt opinions and scientific knowledge.
Consumers place importance on factors that may not contribute to technical risk estimates, while apparently underestimating other factors which could potentially pose a substantial threat to human health. Furthermore consumers do not differentiate greatly between various types of risks within a particular food group. As an example, consumers perceived dioxins in poultry as equivalent to hormone residues in beef. Another example is that 45% of 625 of consumers sampled in Belgium 2001 expressed concerns about BSE (mad cow disease) in poultry. (Verbeke, et al., 2007)
With the meat crises and subsequent decline in the consumption of beef, especially in Europe, governments and the meat industry had to react to restore confidence in meat as a safe, sound and wholesome product.
This problem was addressed by traceability systems and subsequent quality and origin labelling. Communication efforts to inform consumers about the existence and the meaning of traceability on meat labels failed to evoke active interest from consumers. It has however been shown that consumers have a higher interest in quality marks or seals of guarantee. (Vebeke, et al., 2007)
Labelling in food safety
An individual’s demand for risky food depends on income, prices, the objective risk associated with the food, the perceived risk of the food, the likelihood that the individual will be exposed to the risk, and the individuals’ susceptibility to the risk. It follows that the market demand functions for foods that pose a health risk depend on income and prices, but also on consumer characteristics such as risk perception and characteristics of the population. These factors are likely to include demographics and policy (food safety information and labelling). (Antle, 1999)
Price is not always the main driver towards consumer decision making. There is quite a lot of research that indicates that consumers buy lots of products without knowing the price. These research are often based on asking consumers the prices of products just after they have placed it in their baskets.
The percentage of consumers not knowing the price differs between studies and between countries, but has often been found to be very low. However, markets do function and most consumers do manage their income and expenditure flows. It appears that consumers do form an opinion on whether the qualities of the product outweigh the cost. (Grunnet, 2005)
This situation also creates an opportunity for producers and value chains to differentiate their product, aiming at specific target markets, and adapting to local conditions under the wings of a global market approach. As a result, many sectors of agribusiness are competing not only on efficacy and quality control, but also on Adding value. Adding value is a customer orientated concept. Value can only be added to food products to the extent that a consumer at whom the final product is targeted, actually perceives a product as being of better quality. (Grunert, 2005)
Nayga proved this in his study in 2004 by showing that consumers are willing to pay more for irradiated food products. Thus, if a product is labelled and the consumer perceives the product as being safe or of superior quality, they will pay more for such products.
Defining safe food
An important reason why it is difficult to define “safe food” is that it is difficult to set acceptable or tolerable levels of food safety hazards. The Codex Alimentarius Commission has set acceptable levels of commonly recognised chemical substances. For residues an Acceptable Daily Intake has been established. For pesticides this limit is determined on the basis of the concept of Maximum Residue Level, resulting from the use of pesticides according to good agricultural practices.
There has however been doubt in the validity of setting acceptable levels for individual substances. This is especially important when considering substances that are structurally similar. Inclusion levels of these substances should be determined on the basis of toxic equivalence factors for combined intakes.
The approach to microbiological hazards are quite different in defining food safety. The food safety criteria that have been developed are generally based on end-product testing and differ between countries.
These approaches do not guarantee total absence of pathogens as there is non-uniform distribution in the end product and the fact that possible recontamination during production processes can occur. Microbial inspection of all food is practically and financially impossible. It is further impractical to apply end-product criteria to products that will have been distributed and possibly consumed by the time that the examinations have been completed. (Valeeva, et al., 2004)
Food safety and quality assurance schemes
It is the producer’s responsibility to produce a safe, sound and wholesome product. With the Consumer Protection Act (Act 68 of 2008) each step in the value chain has to take responsibility and ownership for its contribution to the final product.
The only way to ensure that pig farmers produce a product that is safe, sound and wholesome is to have systems in place to prevent or limit contamination or anything that can reduce the quality of the final product.
An integrated approach of controlling food safety throughout the whole production chain has become an important issue of attaining acceptable food safety levels and thus the concept of farm to fork (Valeeva, et al., 2004). The Pork 360 scheme is one of these quality assurance and traceability schemes with the aim of food safety from farm to fork.
In 2009 PPP (Premier Pork Producers) introduced a quality assurance certification system. This quality assurance scheme was started with the aim to certify that participating farms comply with certain minimum standards in order to ensure consistent production processes with high-quality pork as the end result. Since 2011 the scheme is called Pork 360 and is governed by SAPPO (the South African Pork Producers’ Organisation). (PPP website)
The Pork 360 quality assurance and traceability scheme addresses the three major hazards associated with food safety, namely chemical, micro-biological and physical hazards.
Chemical: This includes pesticides, veterinary medicine, heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. The Pork 360 scheme addresses these issues by the farmer having strict control over the use of pesticide and veterinary medicines. This includes the use by trained personnel and accurate record keeping and reconciliation over the use of these substances. There is also strict control to ensure that medicated feed does not get fed to pigs that the medication is not intended for as well as to ensure that withdrawal periods of medicines are complied with. Part of the control is testing feed or carcass samples for levels of antibiotics. Heavy metals are controlled by annual water testing and testing of raw feed materials either by the farmer (if he home mixes) or by the feed supplier.
Micro-biological: Here the scheme addresses zoonotic diseases by having control over employee health and biosecurity. No swill feeding is allowed in this scheme and water is also micro-biologically tested twice a year.
Physical: The only real major concern here is the possibility of needles ending up in the meat. With the Pork 360 scheme there is strict control over the use of needles so that the chances of needles getting into meat are acceptably low.
The added benefit of belonging to a quality assurance scheme such as Pork 360 is that the farmer is forced to have better record keeping and more control over products that are bought in (feed, medicines, pesticides and disinfectants). This in turn has an indirect positive effect on production and effectiveness of the business.


The World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created on 1 January 1995. Among the agreements in the establishment of the WTO organisation was the application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS agreement). The SPS agreement changed the way that agricultural product trading decisions are made.
Its main intent is to avoid the unnecessary use of sanitary and phytosanitary barriers to trade, while protecting countries human, plant and animal life and health with the use of scientifically-based measures. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) is the organisation that sets the international standards. These standards are laid down in the terrestrial animal health code, the aquatic animal health code and their corresponding manuals for diagnostic tests and vaccines. (Zepeda, et al., 2005)
The OIE has recognised the difficulty that some counties have in eradicating certain diseases from their territory as a whole and maintaining this disease-free status.
The OIE has thus introduced the concepts of zoning and compartmentalisation for the purposes of disease control and international trade. With these concepts, countries can define a certain sub-population of animals with a distinct health status. Zoning applies to animal sub-populations that are separated by geographical barriers (areas) where compartmentalisation is defined by management and husbandry practices related to biosecurity (farm level). (Terrestrial animal health code, 2012).
During the process of establishing a compartment, the goal should be to reach and maintain a disease-free status. In general, commercial farms are in a better position to eradicate disease and maintain a disease-free status with the use of the appropriate biosecurity measures.
Credibility is the basis for recognition of a compartment and this can only be achieved through effective surveillance, movement controls, producer participation and transparency. (Zepeda, et al., 2005)
The South Africa’s Pig Compartmentalisation system was started with the aim of controlling exotic animal diseases such as PRRS, CSF and Aujeski’s Disease, as well as controlled endemic diseases such as ASF and FMD. This system aims to keep these controlled diseases from affecting South African pig herds and is conducted in cooperation with national animal health authorities.
This system also aims that in the event of an exotic disease outbreak, the spread of the disease will be limited. (SAPPO website)
Participation in this scheme will help farms from a marketing point of view, especially when they market to exporting abattoirs. Some abattoirs will preferably take pigs from compartmentalised farms.
In 2011 there were a couple of FMD serologically positive cases outside the controlled zone. This had a big impact in the trade of meat in South Africa as the borders were all closed to export. At that stage pig compartments did not include FMD and were thus also prohibited from exporting.
Currently FMD is part of the SA Pig Compartmentalisation system and only pig compartments are allowed to export meat to Namibia, even though Namibia still does not allow the importation of live animals from South Africa (even from compartments). This proved to the South African pig industry how important role compartmentalisation can play in trade, which in turn could affect market prices and profitability.
The SA Pig Compartmentalisation system has a further benefit for genetic companies in that it eases the exportation of breeding animals to other African countries.
Difference between Pork 360 and the SA Pig Compartmentalisation system
The requirements for certification of the SA Pig Compartmentalisation system are similar to some of the requirements of the Pork 360 scheme. But the main purpose of the compartmentalisation system is disease control where the Pork 360 scheme focuses on meat safety, meat quality, traceability and welfare (See Table 1). Pork 360 deals with the consumer where as compartmentalisation has an impact on disease control and international trade. Both schemes can potentially impact on the price per kilogram a farmer gets.
Consumer issues like food safety and welfare are going to be major market drivers in the agricultural industry in years to come. Unfortunately there is a lot of consumer misperception with regards to food safety. It has however been shown that consumers do react to product labelling and will be prepared to pay more for a product that is perceived as having superior quality.
The pig industry is in a position to be proactive with regard to food safety and quality by belonging to schemes like the Pork 360 scheme. There is still a lot of marketing and consumer education to be done with regard to the scheme. The success of it will only depend on the number of participating farms. It could serve the pig industry well with regard to market competitiveness, should the pig industry become market leaders in this concept.
The South African pig industry should always strive to have and maintain a high health status. The South African Pig Comparmentalisation system gives farmers the opportunity to take their health status in their own hands.
(References available on request)

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