Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Picture: GCIS
LIFTED: Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson briefs media on the lifting of the ban on the export of red meat from South Africa. Picture: GCIS

THE outbreak of foot and mouth disease four years ago, which cost South Africa R4bn a year in lost exports, was largely due to the collapse of the state’s ability to manufacture vaccines.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson told a press briefing on Wednesday on the lifting the ban of red meat exports by the World Animal Health Organisation (WAHO). The removal of the boycott will not affect red meat producers significantly as South Africa usually imports the product to satisfy domestic demand. Only about 1% of red meat production, mainly venison, is exported. Other animal exports include hides and wool.

However, the WAHO’s decision is good news for animal breeders, and exporters of livestock to neighbouring countries.

The director for animal health at the department, Dr Mpho Maja, said the outbreak of foot and mouth disease could not be pinned down to stray animals crossing the borders as the fences were intact.

However, she said the disease was endemic in buffalo, and it often crossed over to domestic cattle. The spread of the disease was hampered by the inability of state-owned Onderstepoort Biological Products to produce the required vaccine. "The production of vaccine ceased in 2005 and we have had to import 500,000 doses from Botswana," she said.

Department director-general Edith Vries said the company had stopped producing the vaccine as there had been no investment in its equipment and capabilities.

Experienced staff had also left to find better paying jobs.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson said her department had realised research and development spending needing to be increased.

She said the department had spent more than R8m buying new equipment for pesticide testing.

But Democratic Alliance agriculture spokeswoman Annette Steyn said the government had been sweeping the problems at Onderstepoort Biological Products and the Animal Research Council under the carpet for a long time.

"In 2010 government did allocate R400m for the building of a new factory just to produce foot and mouth vaccine, but it will only be fully operational next year," she said.

Ms Steyn said South Africa had an international reputation for developing foot and mouth vaccines for more than 80 years.

"However, 20 years ago a decision was taken to make it operate on commercial lines and so it dropped the ball as it was under pressure to make money instead of looking after animal welfare," she said.

Red Meat Producers’ Organisation chairman Lardus van Zyl said the conditions of the lifting of the ban included that the department erect fences around affected areas, in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal. He said the private sector had taken steps to limit the spread of the disease.