SA ostrich breeders stick neck out on ban

Meeting warned that Congo fever crisis could destroy fledgling industry
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"Are you looking for a most docile, prolific breeder, densely feathered for skin quality?" The Belgian Ostrich Breeders' Association's poster proclaimed the merits of its birds. "Think 20 years ahead . . . the key to your success."

The South African ostrichmen were not thinking 20 years ahead. They were thinking about Europe's ban on their exports, prompted by an outbreak of Congo-Crimean fever, a fatal disease carried by ostriches, which, if passed to humans, causes massive internal bleeding and the collapse of the body's organs.

Huddled around the exhibition centre, surrounded by displays of ostrich leather hand- bags, key rings, and cowboy boots, they muttered darkly about the French and Belgian ostrich farmers who seemed just a little too quick to "point the finger". All around them, enthusiastic breeders from Sussex to Slovenia brought together for the European Ostrich Association's World Congress, chatted about the nutritional requirements of 10-day-old chicks or sat in front of earnest videos on the most efficient way to butcher an ostrich.

In a small pen, a few yards away, partly concealed behind some incongruous red velvet curtains, a dozen or so scrawny birds darted around, but nobody took much notice. And all the time the ghost at the feast hovered, casting its ominous shadow. Congo-Crimean fever, the tropical virus which has prompted the ban on South Africa, was not mentioned in any of the brochures or speeches at the two-day congress, and the organisers put on a brave face.

But publicity surrounding the disease, which has claimed the life of an abattoir worker and left 16 seriously ill, could not have come at a more inopportune time.

Scoop Pienaar, one of the big names in South Africa's ostrich business, was overheard complaining to one of organisers: "I don't want to be negative, but you could kill the entire industry," he said. They were not doing enough, he felt, to stamp out loose talk about a disease which posed less of a threat than influenza. Mr Pienaar hinted at a rift among ostrich producers and perhaps blood on the carpet. If the Europeans were trying to keep out South African product to protect their industry, it could backfire on them. "What's good for the goose is good for the gander," he said.

Barney Van Niekerk, from Johannesburg, agreed: "The French are notorious. They will use any trick to protect their market. But in scoring a short- term gain, they will harm the industry. Look at Mad Cow Disease in Britain; it has damaged beef farmers everywhere."

With consumer confidence in beef and other red meat at its lowest ebb ever, the ostrich industry, has set its sights on the dinner tables of Europe. Assuming fears about the fever can be contained, ostrich could still emerge as the cash crop of the Nineties. At present, only 10 tonnes of ostrich meat is produced in Europe each year, while 800 ton- nes is imported from South Africa.

Crisis-stricken British beef farmers should perhaps know that ostriches happiliy live in any climate, even frost or snow.