Government handling shows up insufficiencies in food safety regulation and traceability within domestic food sector

South Africa’s fresh produce industry unaffected by Egypt listeriosis ban

Egypt’s ban on South African agricultural products will likely have little effect on the latter’s fresh produce industry. The temporary suspension on the issuance of import permits, announced on 10 May by the Egyptian Department of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, will affect meat, processed meat products and unspecified agricultural products. Five percent of South Africa's meat exports went to Egypt last year, such a small amount that the ban seems largely symbolic, according to a South African agricultural economist.

The commercial section of the Egyptian High Commission to South Africa confirms that South Africa’s fresh produce exports to Egypt amount to almost zero, largely due to Egypt's strong agricultural sector as well as proximity to Europe and Turkey. Last year South African fruit accounted for 0.41% of Egypt's fruit imports. No vegetables are imported into Egypt from South Africa. 

In the past there have been sporadic and very limited table grape exports to Egypt, where South African grapes face an import duty of 40%. 

On the other hand, imports of Egyptian products are on the rise, with grapes among the major products that South Africa imports from Egypt. With the South African grape season winding down, imports of Egyptian grapes are due to start next week. Strawberry exports from Egypt is another strong trade category.

In December last year, Rwanda instituted a similar ban on South African products, even before the listeriosis crisis was making headlines in South Africa, not only targeting meat products but fresh produce as well. According to a recent report in Business Insider, South African apples on Rwandan shelves have already been replaced by French ones.

South Africa’s listeriosis crisis reflects a broader problem
The crisis came to a head when nine toddlers from Soweto presented with listeriosis symptoms. The bacteria was traced to the processed meat product they had consumed and from there to several meat processing plants belonging to a major food processor in the country. The company has lost almost 400 million euros in stock value following the listeriosis outbreak.

The death toll eventually rose to 180 people.

“It was actually shocking that it took months for the bacteria to be traced to its origin,” remarks an agricultural economist. “The government’s response was indicative of fragmentation in how they deal with food safety, being spread across the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health. The problem is that, unlike South Africa’s fresh produce export industry, there’s no traceability system for the domestic market.”

Egypt absorbed 5% of South Africa's meat exports in 2017. Given the small contribution of South African meat products to the Egyptian economy, he continues, the whole ban seems rather symbolic. "It does flag that South Africa needs to get its house in order in terms of food safety institutions and inspections as well as traceability systems for food products."
The lack of clear communication from official sources was not helpful, he feels - a sentiment apparently shared by South Africa’s High Commissioner in Kigali, according to Business Insider, who laments the government’s delay in providing Rwanda with requisite information. “By mid-March it was clear that this [outbreak] has got nothing to do with fresh produce. It has nothing to do with meat, except the processed and ready-to-eat meat.”

Almost all of South Africa’s neighbouring African countries have introduced temporary bans on, specifically, South African meat products, followed by Kenya. 

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