Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Poultry import ban lifted, farmers worried

Published:Friday | January 15, 2016 | 1:00 AMTameka Gordon

The Ministry of Agriculture, through its Veterinary Services Division, has lifted the ban on imports of poultry, allowing players to resume purchases from previously restricted areas of the United States and Canada.

Imports were banned from some North American markets last March due to the outbreak of avian influenza or bird flu.

The ministry said this week that the US had reported to Jamaica that all states had been declared free of bird flu in commercial poultry; and that Canada had similarly reported the all-clear to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

The declarations mean "that all countries are now free to trade with them," said Dr Osbil Watson, chief veterinarian in the Veterinary Services Division. All the permits will be updated to reflect the new status, he said.

The ban last year affected imports from Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington in the US, and restricted supplies from British Columbia and Ontario in Canada.

Meanwhile, poultry farmers are insisting the relaxing of the restrictions will result in financial losses for them, especially since those contracted to Jamaica Broilers Group Limited (JBG) are shelling out $700 million to upgrade their poultry houses.

Downie Walker, agriculturalist and representative of the pool of JBG poultry farmers, told the Financial Gleaner that an influx of chicken meat would likely translate to the supply quota of the farmers being cut by the larger broiler company.

"All Mr Levy is going to say to the contract farmers is 'Look, we are not going to put 40,000 (birds) in the house. We are going to give you 30,000', which is going to reduce their earnings," said Walker. JBG is run by CEO Christopher Levy and chaired by his father, Robert Levy.

"The ministry does not understand the workings of the system. They don't know the ripple effect within the communities that lifting the ban will cause," Walker said.

Farmers may lose

With the average cost of setting up two chicken houses rounding out at $80 million, the poultry farmer said he and his colleagues may end up losing money, given the added expense to service loans they incurred to invest in the upgrades and the expected decline in market share to imports.

"How are the farmers going to pay back the loans that they are struggling to pay back now, if you are going to reduce the birds that you are giving to these contract farmers? The less birds they have in the coup is the less money they will make," he said.

JBG Chairman Robert Levy, at the opening of the company's new Cumberland Hatchery on Tuesday, pressed Agriculture Minister Derrick Kellier to "hold the reins" on imports, implying that the company and its farmers were likely to be hit with reduced earnings if the imports lead to a flood of foreign products on the local market.

However, Walker said Levy was just "being polite in his request ... because when there is a glut, it is foolhardy to increase production".

In any event, the ministry has basically already said no to the request.

Speaking at the same Cumberland event, Kellier said his ministry expects no adverse consequences for farmers from lifting of the poultry ban. He said licences will be granted for four containers of leg quarters to be imported weekly for the next five weeks, in the face of increased demand for chicken spilling over from the high-demand Christmas period.

The value of poultry imports between January and November 2014 was estimated at US$30.6 million by Statin. Data for 2015 was not immediately available, the statistical agency said, but it would have been expected to reflect a significant fall-off, given the ban.

Despite the planned imports, the minister insisted farmers will be protected, "because a lot has been investment locally by the broiler companies and by the farmers, and we would not want to impair their sustainability."

Kellier assured the sector that the market would be monitored weekly so that "if we see a particular signal that supply is not equating with demand, then we consider what level of imports we need to bring in only to satisfy it until the broiler companies and the farmers get [production] back up.

"We don't intend to have a glut on chicken meat on the market due to import substitution," Kellier said.

tameka.gordon@gleanerjm.com