FEED Business Worldwide - August, 2011
Dead chickens and frozen exports
by F.E. OLIMPO in Bangkok
In mid June, a joint police and department of Livestock Development team seized nine tonnes of dead, decomposing chickens soaked in cancer-causing formaldehyde at four poultry slaughterhouses raids in Thailand's northeastern province of Nakhon Ratchasima. The next day, eight more tonnes of rotting meat were found in six other slaughterhouses within the same province.
The haul was just a small part of the tens of thousands of chickens killed in a recent Newcastle disease outbreak but slaughtered just the same for distribution to local markets, restaurants and other retail outlets. As Asia's top chicken exporter, Thailand is looked up to as a model in food security and food quality. That such an incident could happen here on a massive scale is incomprehensible.
Yet this wasn't the first time this thing had happened, leaving the local media to call it a "scandal." Two months earlier in April, some of these slaughterhouses were also caught selling decomposed meat. Ten people were arrested at that time but, incredibly, not one of those slaughterhouses was shut down. The governor of Nakhon Ratchasima believes this could have happened only with the connivance of local livestock department officials.
Surprisingly, while the scandal caused mild panic in the local market, it didn't have any adverse effect on the country's flourishing broiler export. Chicken orders from Japan and the EU, Thailand's two main cooked-chicken customers, remain stable, according to the Thai Broiler Processing Exporters Association.
Nantawan Sakuntanak, director-general of the Thai Department of Trade Negotiations, notes that while the chicken scandal was widely reported in Japan, the Japanese government totally ignored it, reflecting its "unwavering confidence" in Thailand's food security record.
The response would have been totally different had it happened in China. In the 2008 melamine scandal, Japan quickly banned milk powder products from China after news broke out that a Chinese milk producer used the toxic industrial substance to pad the protein content of its products.
Even the EU, which is known for its rigid food-import standards, was equally mum on Thailand's contaminated-chicken incident. Thus far the only fallout comes from neighbouring Cambodia, which has banned imports of all kinds of Thai chicken products.
There's more than meets the eye, however, in the Cambodian ban.
For a couple years now, the two countries have been locked in a territorial dispute over an ancient temple that, has on several occasions, erupted into shooting skirmishes and near war. Cambodia has upped the ante by using economic measures to irritate the other side. At the height of the blue-ear disease outbreak in Vietnam last year, it imposed a wholesale ban, which remains till now, on pig imports not just from Vietnam but also from Thailand.
The livestock ban was rather misplaced and purely a political tactic. First, Thailand had no serious blue-ear disease problem at the time. Two, Thailand and Vietnam don't share any border. If any contamination did occur in Thailand, it should have come from Cambodia, which sits in between the two countries. So, if any pig transport ban had to be imposed, logically it should have come from Thailand, not the other way around.
The current chicken ban is just as illogical, if not premature. The slaughterhouses where tonnes of decomposing chicken were seized are in the northeast, on the other side of Thailand, nearer to the borders with Myanmar and Laos. Before any contaminated meat could reach Cambodia in the east, it would have first found its way to Bangkok. There's no proof that any of the formaldehyde-soaked chicken meat from Nakhon Ratchasima had gone as far as Bangkok, a distance of more than 250 kilometers, much less the border towns that straddle the Thai-Cambodian border, which are even farther.
But whether the contaminated meat reached the capital or neighbouring Cambodia is not the big issue. That this happened at all should alarm both government and industry as it shows serious cracks in the country's much-vaunted food security system.
Strict export rules, loose internal regulations
After the 2004 Asian bird-flu epidemic, when trade of frozen Thai chicken was banned across the globe, Thailand adopted stringent regulations to restore international confidence in the safety of its poultry exports. These included costly upgrades in chicken housings to shield animals from outside disease outbreaks.
However, since the focus has been the outside market, the new standards only apply to poultry farms that export or transit products across provincial lines. Small farmers who raise chickens for home consumption or sell at local markets can, therefore, ride roughshod over these regulations.
According to a former livestock department official, regulations that govern a chicken's journey from the farm to the dinner table are complicated and overlapping, creating loopholes which can be exploited by unscrupulous farmers and traders.
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