What's the beef?

European regulations mean it is practically impossible to import meat from Africa. But new proposals could open overseas markets to African farmers, reports Louise Tickle.

Buy a joint of beef in the supermarket, and you won’t find “Produce of Botswana” printed on the label. Nor,beef for that matter, is it likely that your Sunday roast will have originated in Namibia, South Africa or Mozambique. This is in stark contrast to the enormous volume of fresh vegetables that are now imported regularly from countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ghana. But if new standards for regulating livestock products currently being promoted by DFID and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) are adopted, then your entire plate of roast beef and two veg might in the future start life somewhere on the African continent.

But if this is to happen, existing trade restrictions on the export of meat from Africa will have to fundamentally change. Right now, all meat products that are imported into Europe from Africa must come from disease-free zones. This requirement applies even if the animals are perfectly healthy.

These conditions, set in colonial times when Europe had just rid itself of cattle diseases, make access to valuable world markets for small-scale African livestock farmers virtually impossible. And in vast areas – indeed whole countries – where the arid terrain is only suitable for rearing livestock, marginal farming communities find they have no means to trade their way out of poverty.

However, a proposal is now being promoted that would see the meat product itself (rather than the area in which the animal was reared) the subject of stringent regulations and checks. Veterinary surgeon Tim Leyland, who has been consulting for DFID on animal, plant and food safety standards, as well as on how supermarkets ensure food safety in their supply chains, explains the rationale.

“The world livestock market is projected to double. As well as Europe, much of that demand is coming from Asia, because as countries get richer, people want to eat more meat. But current trading standards, as set by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), don’t allow any meat products to be exported that originate from areas where animals contract disease.”

Africa of course has wildlife that harbours lots of diseases, and a very poorly developed veterinary system. So how do you keep these diseases out of the food chain? Some countries use fencing systems to prevent livestock coming into contact with infected wildlife. But this is controversial, says Leyland: “Fences impact on the movement of people and of wildlife. And when the African Union (AU) did some research into the implications of setting up disease-free zones on a wider scale, fences were deemed too expensive and too impractical.”

For some countries, the investment in fences has made some sense, at least until now. For Sudan, livestock is the second biggest export after oil. For Botswana, it’s the second biggest after diamonds. Namibia has thousands of miles of fences, as does South Africa. “And those countries’ governments are investing in their veterinary services,” says Leyland. “£400 million was invested to control one disease outbreak to protect the export market. But a government might think twice about doing the same again.”

Having concluded that extending fencing to control disease simply wasn’t feasible, AU researchers began to look at the possibility guaranteeing the safety of individual products instead. They realised that while safety standards had been established for a wide range of foodstuffs (many of which, like meat, are grown and processed in hot, tropical and diseaseprone countries), such standards do not exist in the same way for meat products.

In response to this finding, Leyland, in collaboration with academics and agricultural organisations across Africa, has developed some pilot “commodity standards” for livestock products, against which meat could be tested for safety. What needs to happen now, he says, is for pilot trials to be set up in the areas of Africa which have the greatest potential for quality livestock export.

“In the longer term there needs to be big investment in abattoirs to European standards: an abattoir licensed to export to Europe is a far cleaner place than a local abattoir. It requires about £1 million investment, but without the markets opening up, that investment won’t happen. But it can be done – and some people are doing it. Somalia, for example, has invested in export grade abattoirs, and as a result, is able to export to the Middle East.”

African governments are not unwilling to invest in their livestock industries. The thousands of miles of costly fencing, leading to disease-free areas, which have been built in some parts of southern Africa mean that Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe have managed to achieve a degree of market access. The cost, however, is too much, and while it might work for ranch-style farming, it won’t for smaller, more remote livestock-rearing communities.

Dr Alec Bishi, a state veterinarian in Namibia, says that an alternative, commodity-standards led approach would bring, “many advantages to the producing country in terms of value addition and employment creation,” and could be achieved in the short to medium term. He warns, however, that there are inherent difficulties which could slow down the process.

“Bureaucratic resistance, age-old and entrenched policies and mindsets will need to be overcome if this process is to be widely accepted. There is a lack of funds to invest in sophisticated processing and storage plants, and the human skills required (for the safe processing of meat) will need to be developed.”

Professor Ian Scoones at the Institute of Development Studies suggests that if poverty reduction is the aim, the choice facing those who regulate meat exports is stark – live in the past and deny poor farmers access to markets which are crying out for their goods, or develop creative options that benefit everyone.

“In Africa, these diseases are simply part of the ecosystem, so short of eliminating every single buffalo and antelope – and you can imagine the outcry if that was attempted – you have a problem,” he explains. “So it leads to a question, which is, ‘What do you want?’.

“The plain answer is ‘a source of meat that doesn’t have a virus or a bacteria in it.’ It’s not a free lunch, but it can be achieved, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to monitor and safeguard a product than to eradicate an endemic disease.”

The OIE is soon to set up a working group to discuss the prospect of moving to commodity standards for meat. And Pretoria, says Scoones, will host an international workshop on future options for the beef industry in southern Africa. There are a range of sticking points to be discussed, and consumer concern isn’t one anyone is likely to forget.

Consumer squeamishness at the prospect of eating a forkful of meat from an animal that may have been killed while infected with foot and mouth, BSE, Rinderpest or Lumpy Skin Disease, is, agree Bishi, Scoones and Leyland, something to which serious thought – and communication skills – will have to be dedicated. But the argument about an increase in African meat imports contributing to food miles is one with which Professor Scoones has no truck.

“With a relatively high value product such as meat, the poverty return on your food mile is high,” he points out. “I am 100% convinced that with the right resourcing, this (system of commodity standards) will work. The risks are very low and they are very easily managed – in food systems, we’re managing risk all the time.”

A DVD – Livestock Commodity Trade – The Way Forward, is available from:


Over two-thirds of the three billion people who live in poverty currently rely on small-scale agriculture for their food and wages.