Wed | Jan 20, 2021

Chicken import shake-up looms

Published:Friday | December 11, 2020 | 12:13 AMChristopher Serju/Senior Gleaner Writer
A new regime could be coming for the import of chicken meat, says Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
A new regime could be coming for the import of chicken meat, says Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Jamaica’s chicken-meat import policy may be overhauled to concentrate licences in the hands of local poultry producers, as a cure to perceived systemic corruption that has dogged the trade, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has said.

The proposed fix comes in the wake of a damning report by the Integrity Commission that hinted at lack of transparency and an award process that was compromised and uncompetitive. Some traders had also blended in premium parts with chicken neck and back to avoid duty.

In the first forthright comment by his administration on the issue, Holness argued that Jamaica’s import policy ought to be driven by shortfalls in local production, but he believes that twinning the capacity to produce chicken meat with the power to import was perhaps a more viable model going forward.

That proposal could draw ire from vested interests that import more than US$25 million in chicken neck and back annually.

Traders have often leaned hard on agriculture ministers to relent on licences – Karl Samuda said in 2016 that he had never been under more pressure than by chicken meat importers – pushing back when administrations try to close the spigot.

The prime minister said candidly on Thursday that his recommendation would be “incentive-compatible” – meaning producer interests with permits would be less inclined to undercut their operations.

“We should make sure that we have our local people tied into the local value chain here, so that there is a vested interest in keeping our output high. ... We have to examine this as a strategy, we have to examine the entire system,” said Holness at the official launch of the Southern Plains Agricultural Development Project, where he delivered the keynote address.

The prime minister acknowledged that the remodelling of the chicken-meat import policy would chafe stakeholders who believe that the Government may be caving in to the Big Two producers – Jamaica Broilers and Caribbean Broilers – as well as other forces advocating protectionism.

“We know it is a complicated issue (and) many businesses are built on it. It is not something that you can, overnight, by fiat of the pen, change,” Holness said.

“... This is not something that the Government is comfortable with, and we are looking into it to find ways to make changes that are not going to be disruptive, but changes that will be beneficial to all.”

Holness said he expects Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Floyd Green to make a presentation to Cabinet next Monday.

GREEN BREAKS SILENCE

Green has noticeably been silently since the report’s tabling on Tuesday, declining comment when pressed by The Gleaner at a supplies handover ceremony in Old Harbour Bay on Wednesday.

But he broke his silence on Thursday, though issuing a dry statement that was thin on detail.

“The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries is reviewing a report tabled by the Integrity Commission in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 concerning the importation of chicken back and neck.

“The report spans the time period 2005-2015 and, as such, an evaluation and assessment of past and current practices will be carried out,” the statement read.

Holness said that the coronavirus pandemic presented what could have been “an epiphenomenal event that totally disrupted our supply chain, such that we could not provide a staple protein for Jamaica”.

Supplies of chicken meat ran short of demand by mid-year, but that gap has closed with the ramping up of production.

christopher.serju@gleanerjm.com