Fresh beef exports: What we need to do

Dr Unesu  Ushewokunze-Obatolu
\nAs a cattle country, we have not been exploiting our real potential in beef production. The reasons for this are many and interlinked. First is inconsistency in the supply of quality beef, good enough to satisfy discerning local and external tastes in the face of international competition. Beef on sale presently is mostly undifferentiated and volumes have been negatively affected by reduction in off-take and carcass yield due to declining attention to issues of breeding, husbandry practices and selection criteria to assure consistency, predictability and traceability. Discretions for these criteria, which could be applied at marketing, are being undermined by unclear policies in the marketing of live cattle, particularly those that have to do with levies not necessarily related to development-related incentives and services. The marketing of beef cattle has, therefore, become too informal and regulatory services meant to guarantee price fairness and to assure consumer protection cannot be delivered.

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A breed of beef cattle producers with a flair for production of high numbers of animals offering high quality meat and who subject themselves to the regulatory services in animal health and production to guarantee good beef quality and provide meat safety assurance are now needed.
\nFarmers are also encouraged to join commodity associations in order to learn from each other, from extension agents, and understand market requirements and lobby for value chain support.

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Informal marketing has another danger in connection with effectiveness of veterinary controls on sanitary safety with respect to the spread of contagious diseases and pests of economic and others of public health importance.

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Veterinary controls, especially movement restrictions, are an important measure applied to limit contact between affected or potentially infected animals, and those that are susceptible to given diseases or pests. The periods of movement restriction depends on the disease or pest of concern, known best by the veterinary authorities, and which can change from time to time and from area to area.

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Unfortunately, transacting parties (buyers and sellers), often underplay the importance of these measures and we end up with spread which undermines effectiveness of veterinary services with negative consequences to the industry.

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This has been a significant factor in the current Foot and Mouth disease epizootic in cattle, which has eroded the gains which the veterinary service had made over the last seven years in pushing the frontier of the disease affected areas to within less than 50 km of the disease’s natural occurrence areas within game conservation ranges.

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A second cause of increased frequency of occurrence and spread of FMD in cattle is the contact between cattle and the wild buffalo, which is the refractory natural reservoir of the causative FMD virus.

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Game parks and conservancies are expected to be secured by fencing on grounds of safety and security to people and livestock, in addition to wildlife conservation interests.

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Our game conservation areas are now generally not secured to effectively separate wildlife from cattle farming areas.
\nWhere separation exists, however, it may be undermined when grazing areas become depleted, especially in the more marginal areas. This forces farmers to drive cattle onto game areas where they come into close contact with buffalo, especially following the weaning of buffalo calves when they begin to amplify the virus. Similarly, shortage of water during the dry periods lead to increased exposure to infection due to mixing at the few watering points. The conservation areas managed by the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe are only a part of much larger Transfrontier Conservation areas (TFCAs), which nature conservationists are urging to remain unfenced to allow wildlife to follow their natural habitat ranges, without limits. This results in conflict between livestock producers and the conservation movement, further driven by interests in tourism. A balance needs to be struck between the two spheres of interest affecting the viability of livestock producers, land use options and national economic interests.

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Livestock keepers in such areas need to be supported with feed resources and watering infrastructure in order to limit movements of cattle.
\nOnce cattle are confined either by physical fencing or through good herdsmanship, additional benefits such as pasture regeneration, breeding improvement and general security against theft and predators will be realised.

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Effective separation from game can also result in benefits to improved health, including better control of the spread of FMD. Our communally managed cattle, which now account for upwards of 90 percent of the national cattle herd, escalate the spread of contagious disease because herds are characterised by high stocking rates and are not necessarily separated from neighbouring herds by physical boundaries. Cattle-to-cattle spread of disease, therefore, challenges the system and is associated with large contingency resource requirements.

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There’s an urgent need to change cattle management in this sector through the animal production and health extension system. FMD – being the most dreaded contagious disease affecting cattle and pigs — is naturally of trade concern and is a bottom line in decisions made by prospective importing countries.

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As a consequence, potential trade partners lose their interest in importing our beef, live cattle and other farm produce such as farm feeds and hay.

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We also lose opportunities to realising earnings from sought-after indigenous breeds and certain wildlife from lower risk areas. Therefore, it matters a great deal that veterinary services are able to effectively detect FMD rapidly through a system of continuous vigilance and rapid control at source to safeguard areas not yet affected by it. This depends a lot on the application of best veterinary practices as defined in animal health standards set by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), to which Zimbabwe is a member. The OIE sets standards for the performance of national veterinary services, the science-based measures utilised in the detection, prevention, control and eradication of listed animal and zoonotic diseases. This is a resource-intensive exercise.

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The OIE standards are the basis for arbitration in trade involving animals and animal products. In applying these standards, countries earn their sanitary status by endorsement from the OIE following assessments for their compliance with the set standards. Such endorsements enhance prospects for favourable trade decisions by interested importers.

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Over the past few years, therefore, Zimbabwe’s veterinary service has undergone a performance assessment, leading to the determination of gaps in the system, which now urgently need to be addressed largely through investment and review of best practices for public sector veterinary services in support of the industry. Some of these investments include capacity optimisation, re-establishment of disease control zones and fencing of cattle farming properties as a basis for cattle traceability and movement control.

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In the same vein, FMD being the leading trade-related animal disease, an application has been lodged with the OIE for consideration in having the national official programme for FMD control endorsed. Consequent to that application, the OIE recently sent its scientific commission on a validation mission to see first-hand the various measures applied in FMD control with respect to their effectiveness and how they comply with the standard. In follow-up steps, FMD control zones will need to be redefined in the context of national goals and additional options now provided by the OIE standard for trade in “safe” commodities such as canned beef.

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While veterinary services are obviously important, weak stakeholder involvement render them not as effective as they should be. Livestock keepers, traders, processors and transporters need to play their part in promoting and sustaining veterinary control measures.

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Strict compliance along the full value chain, starting from the farm with responsible stockmanship involving confinement of cattle to their properties, herding by day and kraaling at night, providing them with sufficient water and feed and preventing straying to compliance with veterinary movement regulations and other orders right up to the abattoirs, go a long way towards limiting the impact FMD exerts on commerce and trade involving cattle and beef.

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Cattle permitted only for direct slaughter must never be diverted to farms or feedlots. Management of feedlots is specific and closely supervised for specified circumstances.

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Therefore, greater discipline by stakeholders is of paramount importance if we are to overcome the negative effects of FMD outbreaks on herd performance, agricultural productivity and commercial activities involving cattle, including export trade of farmed produce.
\nMarket access for our beef can then become a reality.

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Dr Unesu Ushewokunze-Obatolu is the Principal Director of the Livestock & Veterinary Services Department and wrote this article for The Sunday Mail.