David Wolpert, CEO of the Association of Meat Importers and  Exporters. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
David Wolpert, CEO of the Association of Meat Importers and Exporters. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

SOUTH Africa’s beef imports from Brazil were so small in terms of total beef purchases that their suspension last week was unlikely to have a big effect on local supply and demand, Association of Meat Importers and Exporters CEO David Wolpert said on Tuesday.

"The principle may be significant for Brazil, but in terms of volumes it is nothing for us, as we import very, very little beef from Brazil at the moment," he said. "It won’t even be noticed in the marketplace."

Last week South Africa and China joined Japan in suspending imports of Brazilian beef meat. This followed an announcement earlier in the month by Brazil that a 13-year-old cow that died in 2010 in the southern state of Parana had tested positive for the protein linked to the development of mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

The tests were only carried out recently on the tissue of the affected cow.

Egypt, the third-largest importer of Brazilian beef, followed suit by suspending purchases of beef originating from Parana and Reuters reported Russian authorities were considering a similar move.

A study last year of the domestic beef market value chain undertaken by the Department of Agriculture showed that the country produced 835.2-million kilograms of beef, imported 46-million kilograms and exported 4-million kilograms.

The biggest suppliers in 2010 were Australia (38%) and Uruguay (36%) followed by Paraguay (9%), Ireland (7%) and New Zealand (6%). Mr Wolpert noted that the Brazilian beef market had been closed for many years due to other problems such as foot and mouth disease and was only opened last year.

The Brazilian agriculture ministry insisted the dead cow had posed no risk to public health and was an atypical case. Authorities also said the World Organisation for Animal Health had been notified of the case and had indicated it was "maintaining Brazil’s status as a country with an insignificant risk of BSE, the best existing risk classification".

The elderly cow never developed BSE and died of other causes, but tested positive for the causal agent for BSE, a protein called a prion, which can arise spontaneously in elderly cattle.

With nearly 200-million head of cattle, Brazil is a leading beef exporter. From January to October, it exported 1-million tons of beef, mainly to Russia, the ministry said.

Gareth Lloyd-Jones, MD of Ecowize, a health and sanitation company servicing the food and beverage sector supported the suspension of the beef imports from Brazil even though the case was "atypical" because preventive action was "vital to ensure the safety of South Africans".

South Africa lacked the capacity and infrastructure to adequately check the safety of food imports.

He believed that the suspension would probably last quite a long time as was normally the case with such matters, as Brazil would probably have to "jump through a few hoops to prove themselves again".