Meat Inspection Proposals & Working Group recommendations: Departmental briefing, Nominations for Agricultural Research Council Board deferred

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

25 February 2013
Chairperson: Mr M Johnson (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee Members expressed their displeasure that yet again the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) had failed to deliver copies of the presentation documents one week prior to the meeting, as requested. The Department had failed to brief the Committee on the requirements and the candidates nominated for the Board of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) and the Committee refused to consider this item, deferring the issue until its queries were answered.

DAFF then briefed the Committee on the proposals around meat inspections, detailing also the working group recommendations after public consultations were held on the issues. The Meat Safety Act of 2000 had re-introduced the idea that meat inspections should be independent from abattoirs but there was a problem since “independence” was not defined, and the industry and government held differing interpretations. In reality, meat inspectors, most of whom were from the private sector, were put under pressure to pass doubtful products, there was no constant government presence, severe lack of capacity and resources at a government level, and lack of coordination across the spheres of government. The inspections were not standardised, and the public did not recognise the importance of inspections and continued to buy from retailers who were not licensed or inspected, particularly in the rural areas. A Working Group had been constituted, after the Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF) had lodged complaints with Parliament, and had consulted with stakeholders, and studied the processes in 50 other countries. These showed a common thread of government involvement. Six recommendations were tabled, and these would lead to government control over abattoirs, uniform standards of meat inspection in the country, job stability and lack of interference with inspectors and examiners as well as more rural outreach and support. A proposed costing was tabled, mainly in respect of salaries, but Members criticised it as inadequate. It was anticipated that the model would be implemented incrementally, drawing on existing expertise.

Members were critical of the plans, and lamented the fact that DAFF had lost control of essential food safety, particularly where the poor and rural people were concerned. They were not generally convinced that new legislation was necessary, demanding instead that existing provisions must be implemented immediately in the search for urgent solutions, whilst longer-term plans were properly made, with full consultation with all affected stakeholders. They asked for lists of who had been consulted, exactly what had been discussed and commented that it was not surprising that other industry players were frustrated since DAFF seemed to adopt a very high-handed and dismissive approach to any suggestions. They demanded exactly what DAFF had done against errant abattoirs, questioned whether it had capacity, or resources to pay new staff, and whether it had recognised special needs of certain religions, and constraints that poor people faced. They questioned if the poultry industry would be covered, suggested instituting grading systems, commented that DAFF had fallen behind and failed to act with due speed, asked what was meant by “getting closer to working with the industry” and urged that the Minister must take positive actions to address the crisis in the Department. Several Members demanded what steps DAFF would take immediately. The Chairperson noted that the Committee wanted more specific responses. It was agreed that the Committee should get a full written report on the funding, implementation plans, timeframes, costings and stakeholders, and that joint meetings would be arranged with DAFF, Department of Health and Department of Trade and Industry. Members also expressed their dismay and called for updates on the rejection of the foot and mouth status by the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Meeting report

Opening remarks
The Chairperson said there was a consistent challenge in the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF or the Department) getting documents on time to the Committee, to allow Members to prepare for documents. He reminded the Department yet again that all documents to be used at meetings must be delivered a week in advance of the meeting.

As a follow-on to this comment, the Chairperson highlighted that although the Committee was supposed to be briefed on the nominations of members to serve on the Board of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), as some current terms expired in May. However, the Committee had not been provided with the names until the start of this meeting. Members needed to receive advice on the legislative requirements and the role of this Committee, how many were eligible for re-nomination, and the terms of office. There were no measures of effectiveness or performance by board members. He noted that the Committee had been calling for this information for the past week.

Ms A Steyn (DA) concurred with the Chairperson and pointed out that the documents could be e-mailed to Members. Because of their role as public representatives, Members needed documentation to allow them to consult with the electorate, including those in the industry, and to check if the information in the presentations was unbiased and correct, to ensure that they performed proper oversight. Members must be in a position to engage properly and fully with the presentations from the Department, which would also ultimately benefit the Department as well.

Ms M Pilusa–Mosoane (ANC) noted that Members were not kept advised on what was happening to their nominees to boards, and the Department should be briefing the Committee on progress made and not simply return to the Committee when it was time for nominations.

Mr B Bhanga (COPE) commented that the Board appointments were legislated for, and he was concerned that the legislation perhaps did not provide a sufficient role for this Committee and that it should be amended. The Committee should be able to exercise guidance and exercise oversight over the ARC Board.

Mr Sipho Ntombela, Director General, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, told the Committee that the report had been submitted to the Committee in the previous week, although he conceded that the document on meat inspections had been submitted late. He promised to send information on the Agricultural Research Council Board by the end of the week setting out the current members, their terms, and when these would expire. The names of those nominating members would also be given. He suggested that perhaps the Committee could call for information on the performance of the Board specifically when the ARC presented its six-monthly reports.

The Chairperson and Members agreed that the ARC Board nominations would not be considered until full information had been provided to the Committee.

The Chairperson tabled an apology from the Minister and those from Members.

Ms Steyn asked if the Committee would be receiving a written apology for the Minister.

Proposals for Red Meat Inspections: Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries briefing
Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on the Proposal for Meat Inspection in South Africa
Dr Tembile Songabe, Director: Veterinary Public Health, DAFF, briefed the Committee on the status of red meat inspection in South Africa. He set out the relevant legislation dealing with meat inspection (see attached presentation for details), noting that the old Animal Slaughter and Animal Protection Act had provided for meat inspections by government, through the national and provincial authorities, but the Abattoir Hygiene Act privatised meat inspection services, since abattoirs were then obliged to employ their own meat inspectors. The Meat Safety Act 40 of 2000 reintroduced the concept of meat inspections being independent from the abattoirs. However, one major weakness in this Act was that although it stated that meat inspections had to be “independent”, it did not define what this meant. When this Act was introduced, there was also a waiver in respect of poultry. In some areas, immediate inspections were being done by provincial staff, under the authority of a provincial executive officer, but during 2012 there had been calls for the national office to intervene and do the inspections. Most meat inspection services were still being offered by the private sector. Meat inspection personnel would visit the abattoir and oversee each carcass slaughtered. Although government did visit abattoirs there was no constant government presence, except at those export abattoirs that catered for the EU markets.

Dr Songabe said that the process should be working well, but the red meat industry (RMI) had effectively sabotaged it. When qualified meat inspectors were doing their job on the floor, they were pressurised to pass a product, failing which the abattoir could exert influence on whether they kept their jobs. There were problems in retaining inspectors with the result that those with very little experience had to do the inspections unsupervised, and would immediately start looking for other jobs.

Another  general concern was that meat inspection was not standardised throughout the country. Government capacity to provide oversight was limited, because of HR challenges, to certain provinces, and in some provinces there were concerns that senior management and MECs did not understand the importance of meat inspections and safety. The inter-governmental consultation structures tried to stress that meat inspection was an important component of guaranteeing a safe product to the consumer. The challenges lay in implementation of the Act, and in maintaining impartiality and independence by the inspectors. DAFF proposed that government had to work on getting capacity in this area, including using youth inspection services.

Working Group Recommendations emanating from public consultation on Meat Inspection Services in South Africa
Dr Mphange Molefe, Chairperson, Independent Meat Inspection Working Group, briefed the Committee on the public consultations conducted in the previous week, in Mpumalanga, around meat inspection in the country, also outlining the recommendations of the Working Group.

The consultations were conducted at the behest of Parliament, running from 29 January to 20 February 2013, across all nine provinces. They involved members of the industry, communities and anyone else who wished to participate. The DAFF had also considered how 50 other countries conducted their meat inspections. In all, meat inspection fell under government, and nowhere was it left completely to the private sector. Although the processes differed, there was a common thread of constant government presence at any point of the slaughtering process.

Six recommendations came out of the consultation process. These included the recommendation that government should take over meat inspection through central appointments, and suggestions around appointments at provincial level, a state owned enterprise, through assignees (single or multiple, or a combination of government and assignee), or full control ceded to an assignee. Most of these were included in the gazetted document in January 2013.

The advantages of the new proposed system included full government control over abattoirs, uniform standards of meat inspection in the country with the head office giving direction, job stability for inspectors and examiners with meat inspection being recognised as a profession, and inspectors and examiners being able to make professional decisions without fear of dismissals. They allowed for more government support to rural areas and outreach to areas where, in the past, it had not been viable for service providers to be based. Community members could be trained to become meat inspectors.

An anticipated costing was tabled (see attached presentation), noting that this related in the main to salaries. Existing starting salaries of the current service providers, who had three year qualifications, were less than Level One public service salaries. There was, however, limited information on the total cost and the likely shortfall between current industry costs and the proposed new model. The present system could not be eradicated overnight, but a process would be followed to incorporate and use the existing experience. Industry and stakeholders had advised that complete government takeover was not advisable, but preferred a system where government would be a more visible force and oversee the processes.

Implementation of the new model would take place in phases. The first phase involved increasing government capacity and taking over meat inspection in small struggling abattoirs and in rural areas. The busy abattoirs would retain the current service providers, but a full-time government employee would also be placed at each one to create a dual system (following models in Australia, New Zealand and UK). Meat inspection must be regarded as a public good, therefore government should contribute to making up the shortfall, or as much as possible. The DAFF was still analysing inputs and had a meeting scheduled with the Departments of Health and Correctional Services and the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

Discussion
Mr R Cebekhulu (IFP) asked how certain the government could be of meat safety, particularly when the meat was slaughtered and sold in rural areas. He pointed out that not everyone could buy from the supermarket chains, and many bought directly from abattoirs.

Ms Steyn asked if the Department could provide a report on the successes and failings of the current legislation, and why it was considered necessary to change the system. The cost factor was very important but there had to be figures supporting the proposals, as these would need to be discussed. She was concerned about the government taking over functions from the private sector, saying that if they were unable to perform, this would give rise to a crisis, particularly if exports were involved. She was not even sure that DAFF was achieving its current responsibilities, given the staff shortages. For instance, diseased animals had been taken to auctions, which created huge problems.

Ms Steyn wanted to know if the whole poultry industry would now be covered, and how many people would be appointed, pointing out that this too must be factored into the costs.

Ms Steyn suggested that it might help DAFF to have grading systems for slaughterhouses, indicating which would need to be constantly monitored, and which could be isolated for spot-checks only. Since  slaughterhouses relied on their public images, the grading system could encourage them to improve their performance. She thought that such a system might also ease the staff capacity constraints.

Ms N Phaliso (ANC) was concerned about a recent report that consumers were sold horse meat, and wondered what else South Africans were unwittingly eating, as government was clearly not in control of abattoirs. She agreed that government needed to take over, as the country was in trouble, and she stressed that the poor did not even have access to the type of information now presented to the Committee. Job stability would come when there were proper budgets and salaries, and she questioned what socio-political risks the Department was referring to. The new appointments had to take place as soon as possible. The Department should have long since have prepared this study and had all its costing information in order, as well as running pilots in the most problematic rural areas, where there were limited resources and funds. She urged that a government employed lead inspector must be at all abattoirs all the time, but recognised that the DAFF was not even managing, currently, to maintain 24 hour monitoring of coastal waters, so she questioned whether it would have the budget to go further. She stressed that this was a vital department, as it dealt with food supply.

Mr S Abram (ANC) reiterated earlier complaints that the documents had not arrived in time. He thanked the Department for finally responding to the Committee’s call to engage with role players in regard to meat inspection. The Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF) had brought the issue to the Committee, and had even had to return with legal representatives when the Department failed still to do its job properly. The Meat Safety Act No 40 of 2000 put responsibility on the Minister to designate National and provincial Executive Officers and coordinators, (NEOs and NECs), but he wanted to know if they had ever been designated. He asked also if the consumer bodies were involved in the consultations or whether there was an attitude by DAFF that “the state shall decide for the people” without necessarily involving those for whom the state existed. It had been the industry who started the process when it complained about the lack of adequate inspection services. There had been mention by DAFF that the matter had been under consideration since 2008, but he found this strange since it was the RMIF’s complaint years later that brought the problems to the fore.

Mr Abram stressed that DAFF, as a state department, must serve and benefit the people of the country. South Africa was supposed to be a people-centred developmental state. However what DAFF was doing was creating enemies instead of promoting a good working environment. He quoted the comment by DAFF that “The industry proposals seem to suggest that only an assignee must render meat inspection; but this is devoid of substance and truth and is most regrettable”, highlighting that the last part of the sentence was quite negative and failed to recognise that the industry was an essential partner. If there were no farmers and no red meat industry, DAFF officials would not have their jobs. DAFF had essentially failed to pass its first hurdle to take roleplayers with it. No department should tell an important roleplayer, which represented thousands of farmers, and had been invited to raise its concerns to this Committee, that its statements had no substance. He asked if the DAFF had consulted the roleplayers who had initially made complaints, on these proposals. If the DAFF was trying to prescribe to the industry, then it would lose the battle.

Mr Abram also wanted to know what the DAFF had done to bring the devious abattoirs to book. There was a plethora of  laws in the country that could deal with such people. He asked for a list of those who had acted incorrectly, and what was done, particular those that had put pressure on inspectors to pass their questionable products. If government wanted total control over the industry, it must first acknowledge that it had failed the people over the years. He wondered if there was even capacity to exercise this control. The Minister had not exercised the powers that she already had under the 2000 legislation, so he questioned if amendments were indeed necessary. He said the Department could not wait for new legislation but must act under the current legislation to achieve an immediate short term improvement, then state its plans for the future.

Mr Abram noted that the DAFF had said that it visited abattoirs  on a regular basis, but he wanted more specifics on what “regular” was. When the DAFF had presented its annual reports to this Committee it had never mentioned that its oversight over abattoirs was constrained by inadequate human resource capacity and financial challenges, which suggested that it had failed to notice that the current law was not adequately implemented. He did not believe that making more money available would guarantee improvements.

Mr Bhanga referred to a place in Port Elizabeth where it was possible to buy very cheap food and he now appreciated that perhaps many health conditions, including obesity, were due to the unhealthy food being offered. He felt that DAFF was in a state of emergency, but the Minister seemed not to care. It was unfortunate if the Cabinet and the Head of State did not know about this. A nation that did not care for its people was in danger and there was already a national crisis in regard to food production in South Africa. He commented that there seemed to be lack of political oversight, as urgent action was needed in the DAFF and the legislation was not used effectively. Essentially, where the DAFF acknowledged limitations, it was admitting that government had failed the nation. Poor people were buying cheap food, which was probably not checked for food safety, and this would have been considered completely unacceptable in any other country.

Mr Bhanga asked who constituted the Working Group, how long they had served in the Working Group, and thought that the recommendations did not make sense. He asked how “getting closer to working with industry” would work and how it would solve the problems. He asked what kind of qualification was required for an inspector. Finally, he urged for an urgent national meeting, to look into the crisis in the Department.

Ms Pilusa–Mosoane approved of research being done in 50 countries, and said government should never have handed over the task of meat inspection to the private sector. She agreed that South Africans did not know what they were eating, and said that many young people were obese and likely to suffer from disease. Commenting on the point about salaries, she said that if they were employees of government, they would be remunerated on set salary scales. She noted that the provinces had said that the current system did not work, and that many were unhappy with government interventions. The main problem continued in rural areas where people slaughtered without inspections.

Mr C Msimang (IFP) said that he was from a rural area, and was pleased to note that government intended to support the rural abattoirs. However, he wanted more detail since “support” had yet to be defined. He agreed that stock in rural areas was never inspected, be it chickens or cows, who would be taken directly from the seller’s kraal to the buyer and then be slaughtered. He too had his doubts about the wisdom of new legislation and said that if DAFF was insistent that new legislation was needed, he needed to know when it would be passed and what immediate steps DAFF would take now.

Mr Ntombela said that DAFF would not attempt to be defensive. He said it was clear that the way the legislation had evolved, and the current scenario, created huge problems. The interpretation of the 2000 Act was problematic, as the legislation proposed a mixed function and joint work with the private sector, which created competing interests. The industry emphasised the “independence” of meat inspection, saying that this did not allow for any government intervention. However, the DAFF pointed out that the Act had also catered for national and provincial government to play a part. DAFF would approach National Treasury to fund an increase in its capacity in line with the new proposals. No capacity had been built over the last 13 years.

He agreed that the DAFF had met with RMIF, and an implementation plan was drawn, with consultation being one of the resolutions taken. The consultations included the industry players and other roleplayers. However, he noted that the motive of industry players was to make money.

Dr Songabe spoke to the question of sabotage of the process by some devious abattoirs, repeating that in some instances, meat inspectors on the floor were scared to give correct but negative findings, as this had resulted in some instances by them being moved to another abattoir far away from their families, or false accusations of theft, for instance, being brought to justify their dismissal. The current system was putting meat inspectors in compromising positions. They should be able to make and report on their decisions without fear or favour.

Dr Songabe agreed that consumers needed to be educated on issues of meat safety, since they drove demand, and if they continued to purchase meat at places that had not been inspected, this lack of inspection would continue. However, he did note that animals were dipped in rural areas, and were examined for the most common diseases.

Dr Songabe noted the suggestion to grade abattoirs, saying it had been proposed previously, and the Minister was currently in consultation to comply with this. It would take matters further if successfully implemented.

The Chairperson interjected to say that Mr Msimang had asked some fundamental questions and this Committee needed to know what the immediate response of the DAFF was, pending the long-term improvements. He also commented that whilst he had heard the comment on the approach to National Treasury, the DAFF would have to include costings in any new legislation.

Dr Songabe said the DAFF knew how much the project was likely to cost, but did not know how much revenue was in circulation in the industry, and did not have any formal information, only undocumented estimates, of what abattoirs were paying to their current service providers.

Dr Songabe confirmed that, as provided for in the 2000 Act, NECs and NEOs had been appointed. However, the industry had approached the Committee because some provinces had strongly objected to proposals made, with the result that it had not been approved. DAFF had tried to ensure that consultations included a wide variety of roleplayers, the most prominent being the RMIF, who had been present at and contributed also to all provincial consultations. There had been instances where deviant abattoir owners had to be told to stop production, and in some instances they had their licences taken away. This was more prevalent in some provinces than others, although action was taken across the country.

Dr Songabe explained that the Working Group constituted representatives from all provinces, together with the national office and this was a conscious decision after accusations of non-consultation with provinces in the past.

He noted that when abattoirs were opened, in rural or urban areas, they must at least break even. Government was considering having mobile inspection units travelling from one rural area to another, on pay days, which was more financially viable and more effective use of existing resources. If government intervened, the abattoirs would become not only businesses, but service providers, and this had already been happening in some areas already. He conceded that DAFF had weak structures for environmental health inspectors; in some areas there was no contact at all, but in others there had been building of relationships, although there was no formal framework.

Dr Songabe noted the comment that DAFF had not specifically raised capacity constraints with the Committee. Some provinces had approached their provincial treasuries, and whilst some had secured funds and had fully equipped structures, but others had not, as there had been competing priorities such as rabies vaccinations.

The Chairperson interjected to note that the tenor of the answers was not satisfying and he would have liked more specific responses. He still wanted a concrete answer on Mr Msimang’s questions as to the immediate plans for the future.

Ms Steyn proposed that the Committee should get a written report on the funding, implementation plans, timeframes and the stakeholders with whom the Department had met. She would not be prepared to support an application for funding from Treasury without full answers. She also urged a meeting between DAFF and the Department of Health as there seemed to be a disconnect.

Ms Phaliso supported DAFF’s intention to approach National Treasury, saying that implementation of the project was urgent matter and there needed to be a budget to support it.

Ms N Twala (ANC) said the Department needed to do a full costing immediately, considering the urgency of the matter.

The Chairperson said he would support holding a joint session at which DAFF, Department of Health and Department of Trade and Industry were present, but this must take place concurrently with other processes. This might answer Mr Msimang’s concerns.

Mr Abram supported this proposal, but stressed that the DAFF should not wait for a new regime to be put in place; it must implement the existing legislation. He urged that the different needs of the communities – for instance, for halaal and kosher meat – must be taken into consideration.

Mr Ntombela responded that there would be more consultations, and DAFF would develop an action plan with timeframes and costings. He supported the call for a joint session to examine the roles of different departments. He noted that there was not so much a problem with processing of meat, but labelling.

Ms Steyn referred to a statement by the DAFF that its foot and mouth proposal document was rejected by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which was shocking. She asked for more information why it was not accepted since the issue needed to be tackled soon.

.The Chairperson said the point had been raised before, and the Committee had asked for a foot-and-mouth report specifically from the North coast of KwaZulu Natal.

Mr Ntombela said that the DAFF would cover this in its quarterly report. The rejection of the submissions had huge implications on the red meat industry, including inability to export. However, a state representative was currently negotiating on that issue and the submissions may be able to be amplified and reconsidered. An assessment was done by the OIE in different countries, and the final report would be available soon.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee would not have time, today, to debate the quarterly report.

Ms Steyn asked that this report must also detail the resources of DAFF in full.

Mr Abram said local government should be playing a major role, as meat processing happened at butcheries. There was a breakdown in links between the spheres of government and local government followed its own path, with provincial departments not participating in discussions. Every level of government must take responsibility, as some things were beyond the control of national government. Municipal health inspectors should travel between butcheries and cafes to check tinned products and meat, as they had done in the past. He asked DAFF to give a full report on the Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) status, and the shortcomings in oversight that caused the loss of this status and reasons why OIE had rejected the application. He stressed that even if the DAFF had the best legislation in the world, it must be properly implemented, with sufficient staff, and support from local government and the Department of Health.

The meeting was adjourned.

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