Buffalo meat exports struggle to shed tag

Buffalo meat exports struggle to shed tag

The Hind Agro Industries Ltd slaughterhouse in Aligarh is on the frontlines of India’s battle against a centuries-old ailment—foot and mouth disease—that is crippling the country’s meat exports.

The buffaloes reaching Hind Agro travel with their health certificates, which need to show that they have been vaccinated every six months. Once slaughtered, an expert examines the carcass, which is then chilled to 7 degrees Celsius for 24 hours to start a chemical process that kills most germs by making the meat slightly acidic. And just in case, the meat is deboned because bones carry the disease, not the meat.

But in spite of all this, Hind Agro, which is the second biggest buffalo meat producer in India, finds most of the world’s markets closed to it, forcing the company to sell its meat to a handful of countries.

“If not for the disease, the sky would be the limit," said Surendra Ranjan, a technical director at Hind Agro, and editor of Asian Buffalo magazine. “Within one year, (India’s) exports could increase threefold to almost $1.8 billion (Rs7,074 crore)," he added.

But the disease has proven difficult—almost impossible—to eradicate in many of the countries that have been afflicted by it. It takes decades for a country to reach a status called “foot and mouth disease-free", and the years of vaccination and lost exports often damage the local industry as farms and manufacturers go out of business.

In India, though, the battle against the disease is relatively new, even though the disease was first recorded here almost 180 years ago. The Centre’s current policies amount to no more than a pilot plan, and a nationwide vaccination and quarantine programme is unlikely any time in the future.

For the industry, it is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle standing in the way of almost guaranteed success. After all, India has all the ingredients to be among the world’s largest meat exporters—the world’s largest cow and buffalo population, a booming private sector in the meat processing industry and relatively low local consumption of meat.

Instead, it only makes up just about 2% of the world’s meat exports, according to most analyses of the world market, barely utilizing more than one-10th of the country’s bovine population. Mostly, buffaloes that die of natural causes or have ceased to produce quality milk are the ones that are slaughtered. (Except in two states, cow slaughter is illegal in India, so most of the production is of buffalo meat.)

But foot and mouth disease, which has been controlled in other countries for decades—the US has been foot and mouth disease-free since 1929—is so widespread in India that the biggest markets for meat imports, the US, the UK and Western Europe, remain closed to Indian exporters.

Instead, they are able to sell their meat—especially buffalo meat, which makes up about 95% of India’s meat exports—to countries already infected with the disease.

As a result, the industry has seen years of double-digit growth plateau off in recent years, mostly because it has saturated possible exports to the Gulf countries, Egypt and Malaysia, which also have foot and mouth disease among their livestock.

The disease, which can be spread through contact with infected animals, from the pens in which they are stored, or more rarely from the clothes and skin of animal handlers, results in ulcers and lesions in the feet and mouth of livestock with cloven-feet such as cows, goats or sheep. It very rarely affects humans because the acid in the stomach destroys the virus, and the last recorded case of a human infection was in the 1960s.

But as any new infestations can devastate a country’s meat exports, trade in meat from countries such as India is highly regulated. A 2001 outbreak in the UK resulted in the destruction of seven million animals in the immediate quarantined area. In China, in 2005, about 6,000 animals were killed overnight in a still-undisclosed region after one farm was found to be infected.

The annual losses for the meat exports market because of that fear of infection, according to animal husbandry commissioner S.K. Bandyopadhyay, are at least about Rs10,000 crore. In addition, another $800 million, or nearly Rs3,200 crore, worth of livestock die of the disease, or are destroyed.

“That’s a huge sum of money that we are losing as a country," said Bandyopadhyay. “And while the solution is difficult and complicated, it is not impossible."

Until recently though, the Indian government’s efforts to eradicate the disease were half-hearted. Not until 1971 did the government consider studying the prevalence of the disease, which infects the entire country. Since then, it has set up about eight regional centres and 15 network units to track and monitor the disease, but has spent little money or effort in eradicating it.

In the 11th Plan, though, it has set aside about Rs200 crore to target 54 districts across the country, and another Rs150 crore for individual state programmes, where the Union government pays 75% of the cost of attacking the top three livestock diseases in each state.

But complete eradication of the disease, according to veterinarians and experts on the disease in the private meat processing sector, will be impossible without a sustained programme that could run up to 15 years of twice-a-year vaccination of a large number of livestock, which could cost as much as Rs3,500 crore. Even Bandyopadhyay calls the current efforts no more than a pilot programme.

For two of the biggest meat exporters in India, Hind Agro and Allanasons Ltd, which make up about 70% of the exports from India, the problem is frustrating. All their livestock is free of the disease, they say, but they are not allowed to export their product to some of the most lucrative countries.

“Look, the potential to earn significant foreign exchange is there, but this disease is the biggest challenge," said a senior Allanasons executive, who declined to be named because he didn’t want to be seen as criticizing government policy. “If other countries can take this seriously, so should we."

In 1998, for instance, India declared itself free of a virus called rinderpest that had been detected in a cattle consignment from New Delhi in 1976. After six years, the Paris-based Organization International des Epizooties agreed that the country had indeed isolated and defeated the virus. Within a year, India’s exports of buffalo meat to Saudi Arabia leaped from zero to Rs1,300 crore a year, making it the biggest market for India’s meat exports.

Indian exporters have seen most of their growth in Islamic countires for very specific reasons: they are able to provide halal meat, or meat which is slaughtered in Muslim tradition. Also, unlike in the West, residents of these countries welcome buffalo meat, instead of beef, because it is seen as healthier, more flavourful and more suited to being cooked in curries.

As the industry in India matures, said Amit Sachdev, a livestock expert with Blue Cross Consultants Ltd, the quality of exports would also increase. Currently, he said, the meat would not be able to compete on quality with that from Brazil, Argentina or the US. Until then though, the segment for low-cost, medium-to-low quality buffalo meat would be sufficient to keep the market growing.

In India, though, with its porous borders with Bangladesh and Nepal, complete eradication might likely prove impossible, said Bandyopadhyay, the animal husbandry commissioner. Even in the pilot projects in the 52 districts, handling the large bovine population and keeping track of their health registries has proven difficult. Even if a small pocket in a remote corner of the country remained infected—say on its borders with Nepal or Bangladesh—the disease could spread rapidly enough to undo years of vaccinations elsewhere.

Mindful of that challenge, Indian exporters have approached international authorities to approve exports from foot and mouth disease-free zones within the country. That proposal will be taken up for consideration by the Organization International des Epizooties, but each individual country will have the right to reject those imports. Upma Chaudhury, a joint secretary in the ministry of agriculture’s department of animal husbandry, dairying and fisheries, recently returned from a four-day official trip to Indonesia, where one of the topics of discussion was opening exports from India.

Chaudhury, through a spokesman, declined comment, but two of the participants on the trip said they felt the Indonesians hadn’t been impressed.

“It could take a few more years," said one, who declined to be named. “But if they can buy it from so many places that are disease-free, why would they take the risk to buy from us?" he asked.