(Third of four parts)
Editor’s Note: The second part of this four-part series discussed how the country’s livestock industry has been suffering from apparent government neglect. It is also part of the article that was adjudged 2013 Agriculture Story of the Year during the BrightLeaf Agriculture Journalism Awards held in December last year. It was originally published in Livestock and Meat Business (LaMB) Magazine by the author.
Another issue that battered the swine industry in recent years and raised questions about government’s competence in handling large-scale crisis was the depopulation of roughly 6,500 hogs at a commercial farm in Barangay Santo Niño, \hPandi, \hBulacan, in March 2009.
The slaughtering, burning and burying of the animals came in the aftermath of a sudden announcement made by authorities four months earlier that a non-fatal ebola reston virus (ERV) was discovered in certain pig farms in Bulacan, Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan.
Under the watchful eyes of representatives from the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, International Office of Epizootics (OIE), and animal welfare groups and closely monitored by media, government teams from DA and local health and agriculture units in Bulacan were mobilized to conduct a week-long animal destruction process. They used policemen’s service pistols to kill the pigs after five captive bolts used in stunning them malfunctioned.
Prior to the mass slaughter, agriculture officials assured the owners of Win Farm, whose herd was believed to be harboring much of the virus, to be compensated for the loss of their animals. But instead of paying them at fair market value and considering the mental anguish, emotional stress and stigma they had gone through for being accused by the local community as “culprit” and “disease carrier,” DA bargained for a 25-percent to 50-percent price discount per head.
Under such scheme, the government was supposed to pay the farm owners between P6.28 million and P15.62 million as indemnity. But the amount has not yet been fully settled and the poor hog raisers received far less than agreed upon, a source said.
“Three years after the depopulation, the owners have not yet collected nearly half a million [pesos]representing unpaid balance of the indemnity owed by government,” the source added.
Sought for comment, Davinio Catbagan, who was the Bureau of Animal Industry director during the 2009 ebola crisis, politely declined to answer queries regarding the matter.
Today, a new set of operators is running the once ill-fated pig farm. One of the original owners left for abroad, the source added.
Botched export bid to Singapore
The announcement about the ebola in Luzon dealt a heavy blow to hog raisers in South Cotabato as well. Sometime in December 2008, just when they were supposed to send their inaugural pork export shipment to Singapore, DA officials stalled their move, effectively aborting the meat deal ever since.
The cargo, consisting of 50,000 kilograms of various frozen pork choice cuts worth over P17.5 million, was already loaded inside two 40-foot container vans in the second week of December 2008. It was placed aboard a vessel that was set to leave the General Santos City port after it was issued pre-shipment clearance by Singaporean authorities.
It would have been the start of a lucrative meat trade deal with Singapore and the reward of two years of hard work among meat regulators, a local operator of an “AAA” abattoir and a consortium of Mindanao-based hog producers eager to expand their market by going overseas, industry players said.
“But the local veterinary quarantine officer, acting on orders from BAI officials in Manila, refused to sign and release the export permit documents, thus putting our shipment on hold for several days,” South Cotabato Swine Producers Association (Socospa) Chairman Emilio Escobillo, said.
As the vessel’s departure was delayed, owners of the cargo, mostly members of Socospa, had to pay over P20 million in demurrage and cold storage fees, resulting in losses, Escobillo claimed.
The hog growers were prompted to sell their meat at supermarkets in Davao and Koronadal and elsewhere at rates much lower than what they would have earned from the Singapore deal, he added.
In the aftermath of the ebola fiasco, Singapore had since imposed stricter export requirements before it allows local pork to enter its market. One of the requirements BAI offered to comply with but failed to do, was for it to show lab test results indicating that pork from Mindanao did not carry the ebola virus. To comply with this, the bureau vowed to order 5,000 ebola test kits from the United States and the same to be used in getting blood samples from pigs in Mindanao to check if they were positive of ERV.
As it turned out, the test kits supposed to come from the US did not arrive, thus BAI could not conduct the ebola test and therefore cannot show proof that pigs from Mindanao were ebola-free.
Meat and livestock officials claimed that complying with the other export requirements had become equally exhausting and burdensome. This prompted them to lose heart and to drop the pork export bid to Singapore altogether, leaving local hog producers hanging.
Escobillo said that his group have met with agriculture officials several times in the past, prodding them to pursue the export bid more vigorously by simply issuing a certificate indicating their pork products were free from ebola virus (which actually have remained so). He said such document would be enough for Singapore, claiming that the suggested measure came no less from Singaporean veterinary authorities.
Sadly, their pleas landed on deaf ears. Thus the country’s first viable attempt to export pork has failed, not because of the industry’s inaction but by government default.
“We have done our best to explore new markets for our pork and Singapore would have been, and still is, a bright and promising prospect. But DA was not helpful enough to realize our dream,” Escobillo, obviously frustrated, said.
(To be concluded)