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A group of concerned cattle farmers, auction houses and transport contractors are considering legal action and damages claims against government and other official organisations in the red meat industry due to damages they are suffering from the current foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. In letters, those concerned are demanding answers from government, the Red Meat Producers Organisation (RPO), and the National Animal Health Forum (NAHF) and its provincial equivalent about what they have done in the past four years to combat foot-and-mouth disease, says Hannes Jacobs, a lawyer from Pretoria acting on behalf of the group. South Africa is currently experiencing the worst outbreak of foot-and-mouth, Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza said last month, before a nationwide 21-day ban was introduced on the transportation of cattle, with a few exceptions under strict conditions. This brought the entire value chain to a standstill – from farmers to transport contractors. One auction house estimates its losses for the time at nearly R50 million and a farmer who usually sells 200 bull calves a month could not do anything. According to Jacobs, the parties involved want to remain anonymous, for fear of victimisation. He says the minutes of meetings of the animal health forums from 2018 that his clients are requesting will show which plans were decided on to ensure the safety of the red meat industry and how they were carried out. Jacobs says that if they do not get satisfactory answers, they will request the information under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. According to his letters, his clients are suffering great losses due to the negligence and failure to introduce proper measures, which have led to an irrational, discriminatory ban. He says final damage estimates have not yet been made, because the minister only lifted the ban on Thursday afternoon. Didiza said that strict measures still applied in specific areas in Limpopo, parts of the Free State (including Marquard, Viljoenskroon and Harrismith) and parts of KwaZulu-Natal (including Ulundi and Hluhluwe) that have been declared disease management areas. The lifting of the ban follows good work over the past three weeks by the state’s veterinary services, private veterinarians and animal health technicians in collaboration with traditional leaders, communities and the police. The directorate of animal health in the department said in a report on Monday that, so far, animals have been evacuated from various premises and the premises disinfected. Vet patrols and roadblocks have been set up in the disease management areas in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, where the illegal transportation of cattle is suspected to have taken place, and illegally transported animals have been seized. The perpetrators face prosecution. However, when asked, the department could not say how many roadblocks were set up, how many suspects were apprehended or how many animals were seized. Jaco de Villiers, a specialist management scientist and cattle farmer in the Free State, said at a meeting in Bothaville on April 5 that the RPO had promised that, within a week, it would publish a complete plan on how to combat the disease and limit its spread. De Villiers said he had made a plea at the time for the Free State’s borders to be closed to protect the province’s cattle, but his request had been ignored. There is still no plan from the RPO on the table. Wilhelm Rochér, a farmer from Swartruggens, says many farmers are dissatisfied with what the RPO is doing. According to him, the organisation, which says it is the recognised mouthpiece of the farmers, only represents about 5% of red meat producers. De Villiers says a statutory levy for services, paid by role players in the industry, goes to administrators to whom the state has delegated the service. Producers do not want to pay this any more, because they believe the RPO, the SA Feedlot Association, the emerging red meat producer organisation Nerpo and others who have to provide the service are failing. It seems that the concerned farmers want to determine whether the group has carried out the duties that the state delegated to them and fulfilled their undertaking. Even if the function has been delegated to the administrators, it must be established what the state’s role was, whether supervisory or auditing, and whether the state fulfilled this role, says De Villiers. Willem van Jaarsveld, chairperson of the Foot-and-Mouth Forum with representation in Limpopo, North West, Free State and Gauteng, says that, as a state-controlled disease, the state must stop the spread of foot-and-mouth from the endemic and surveillance areas, and act effectively if the disease does spread outside the control areas. Budget deficits and insufficient manpower are just some of the problems this has caused. However, the state cannot expect livestock farmers always to have an understanding of a situation caused by poor control measures. And this while warnings from the industry are ignored and no accountability is demanded from perpetrators. He also says intervention is necessary because no action is taken against the guilty. He has heard more and more about possible private prosecutions of perpetrators. The forum has also asked the minister to release the report of the working group on South Africa’s biosecurity status immediately. City Press has learnt that the report was handed over to the minister as long ago as January, but those who must use it to draw up and implement a comprehensive biosecurity plan are being kept in the dark about what it says. The RPO and NAHF said earlier that an industry-oriented technical task force consisting of international experts and the department is working on a medium- and long-term strategy for the road forward, including the development of a vaccine specifically for South Africa.

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