The story broke a few weeks ago that imported frozen chicken leg quarters coming into the country from the US were reaching here over 180 days old and apparently unfit for human consumption.
This news created a panic among consumers causing an adverse effect on some supermarkets as customers began returning frozen chicken already bought, worried about food fraud and the risk of unsafe consumption.
Discussions about becoming vegetarians even appeared on the social media network Facebook, where people exchanged opinions on the issue. Further anxiety was created when at a June 17 Joint Select Committee (JSC) meeting on food fraud, Poultry Association of T&T (PATT) president Robin Phillips and Caribbean Poultry Association (CPA) executive director Desmond Ali, said chicken past 180 days old and considered unfit for human consumption and marketed as pet meat, was being purchased by local retailers and sold to consumers.
But this was immediately dismissed by Supermarket Association President Dr Yunus Ibrahim. In a telephone interview, Ibrahim said it must be made clear that freezing meat as part of the preservation process to be able to keep the meat for the purpose of future sale is a normal standard.
He said all the talk about expired meat being sold was far from true. And he said the 180 days that's being clouted around at the moment was a US poultry standard which states that frozen meat after 180 days should be deemed as pet meat. There is no existing standard in T&T.
Ibrahim said what people must understand is the only way to get meat from point A to point B was to freeze it.
"It is not to say that the chicken is stale. It is not as if we are taking rotten meat in the US...freezing rotten expired meat and then sending it to T&T, that is so not the case, and we have to get that jargon correct," said Ibrahim.
"Nobody is selling expired meat!" he quipped.
He said all meats coming into T&T comes frozen. And they are placed to freeze immediately after they are slaughtered.
"This is the only way they are ever going to reach our shores."
He believes the people who want to see a higher standard for imported chicken to be developed, are being mischievous by propagating that expired meat is being sold at groceries.
"The reality is, we in T&T do not have our clear cut information right with respect to our position on frozen meat coming into our country as it applies to chicken. We don't have an existing standard and we are hearing that a standard had been drafted by the Ministry of Health since 2012 and it is yet to be vetted and approved by the said ministry. Until this standard is implemented, which is a process, no one should be walking around spreading untruths or non-factual information about imported frozen meats."
He said the Supermarket Association ensures all health and safety standards are intact.
He believes, though, there may be one or two unscrupulous people who may be this deceptive, but the Association's position is that if meat is marked as pet meat, it should have never entered the market for sale as anything else. He said that was strictly an issue for the Customs and Excise Division to ensure.
Ibrahim reasoned it is not in the best interest of any supermarket to sell goods that would be returned to them. He said without a standard from the Ministry of Health, the question arises of who is leading who.
He said less than 20 per cent of chicken sold at the supermarkets is foreign. He said mischief-makers are making a play for full local supply by turning consumers away from imported chicken. He said so far the reasons being given by those mischief-makers were without scientific basis or facts. Therefore it only shows that they are the ones who stand to benefit from the propaganda that's being spread, he said.
Problems of local chicken farming
The T&T Guardian wanted to know if this country can really go fully local in supplying chicken. To get our answer we spent a day in south Trinidad, visiting poultry farms and speaking with two experienced poultry farmers who gave insights into the challenges and infrastructural problems that make rearing chickens a labour of load rather than a labour of love.
Both farmers rear chickens for a major chicken supplier, and requested anonymity for fear of being victimised. They told the T&T Guardian it was not even profitable to rear chickens. According to them, they rear chickens at a measly profit of $2 per chicken and sometimes they were even fought on this. Both, though lovers of the farm, had to seek other small business ventures to feed their families.
Carl has been rearing chickens since 1991, following in the footsteps of his father who was also a poultry farmer. But the worn out looking rearing shed which houses 15,000 chickens is evidence of challenges. He says the capital investment way surpasses the revenue made. He must ensure the rearing shed is equipped with proper equipment, water supply, fans, sprinklers and sprayed regularly to prevent insects and bacteria, among other necessities. Carl has his job well cut out for him.
Chicks reach Carl's farm at a day old, and are fed starter feed. They receive five different vaccinations. This is followed by two more vaccines within the next 20 days. By six to eight weeks, if all goes well, they are ready to be sold back at a contracted price.
Carl describes it as two months of hard work. "Remember we are growing these chickens from newborn to the point of sale."
A day's work includes feeding the birds in the morning, medicating the water, and cleaning the shed, which includes spraying. He has to ensure that rats, manicou, owls, cats, stray dogs and even corbeaux stay out of the shed (this isn't always achievable). Sometimes 100 chickens can be lost all at once when attacked, and that's a loss for a farmer because he has to pay for that loss.
With his aged shed, there is plenty maintenance to be done. He said it is difficult to keep a steady maintenance of the farm because so little money is made.
Other challenges include labour, as sourcing workers is difficult as Carl said no one wants to do that kind of work. Added to that he said even if workers were easily found, farmers cannot even pay them. He said:
"If you do the math on it, a farmer will be working for $150 a day. How you going to pay a worker, maintain your farm? It boils down to where you have to do the work yourself to get value for your money."
He said for the last five years it has been very hard for farmers, because they have been working and just making $1.50 or $2. He reiterated poultry farmers lose more than they gain.
His colleague Victor added that when these concerns are raised in meetings with suppliers, often the farmers are victimised.
"I went to the last set of meetings and after that, I never get a good batch of chicken again," said Victor.
Once the chicken is grown, the conversion is made by weight. He described that a "bad batch" of chickens will not grow or feed well because medication might be purposely left out. The birds will not die but they will not grow well, which then leaves the farmer at a disadvantage.
Both farmers said their associated broiler selects farmers they want to help by choosing to whom they give good or bad chicken batches. They said there is a lot of "back stabbing" and politics involved in the poultry farming industry. And the disunity, they said, is distorting the real need for better infrastructure, so that poultry farmers can make a better living.
As private farmers, they said there is not much demand they can make of the Ministry of Agriculture or the Government to seek their interest. But they are hoping someone picks up their plight so that policies can be drafted and implemented to assist poultry farmers. As it is, if conditions remain the same, both Carl and Victor believe there will be a serious decline in the existence of private poultry farming.
When contacted via telephone and email to speak on these concerns, the Ministry of Agriculture's communications unit said the T&T Guardian's questions have been forwarded to the relevant ministry personnel for their attention. There has since been no response.
Need for food policies and standards
Commenting on the recent chicken fiasco, Agricultural Economist Omardath Maharaj defined some terms. He said food safety refers to measures taken to protect the nation's food supply from unintentional adulteration or contamination. Food defence is the collective term used to describe activities associated with protecting the nation's food supply from deliberate or intentional acts of contamination or tampering. And food fraud is an intentional act that is economically motivated.
"Given these basic definitions, one is very constrained to identify public policy and institutions that protect the interest of consumers," he said, pointing to the urgent need to set clear policies to guide T&T food security and nutrition standards.
Jason Francis of Bloom Imports in Diego Martin, who imports organic poultry, said the quality of locally grown chickens depends on a number of factors. Breed of bird, diet, living conditions, age of the bird, harvest process and handling after harvest really play critical roles, he said.
"If you are cramming chickens into a small pen with little ventilation, the quality of the life and therefore the meat from that animal is going to suffer. Plus, with a lot of chickens in a small space, they get sick, so most commercial farms need to give them medicine to survive. With yard fowls, common problems are the breed and the age of the bird. Different breeds will produce different body types and meat. If a chicken is older, the meat will taste different, and so on."
Can we grow local organic chicken?
Speaking about growing organic or hormone-free chickens, Agricultural Economist Omardath Maharaj said totally organic chickens might be relatively difficult to obtain commercially in T&T but they should never be ruled out as a potential market opportunity.
Jason Francis of Bloom Imports in Diego Martin imports organic chicken. He said locally reared organic chicken is very difficult or even impossible to grow. He said if someone claims to be selling you "organic chicken" that isn't imported, they are most likely wrong. He said:
"We see it a lot with vendors trying to sell us 'organic' products. First off, all commercially milled feed in Trinidad contains 'vitamin' packs that use antibiotics. So, even if someone has 'yard fowl', if they are giving them feed from the store, it's not organic. If the yard is sprayed, it's not organic. If the fruits/veggies they are eating aren't organic, the chicken isn't organic. If they are feeding corn and the corn is genetically modified maize (GMO) corn, it's not organic. Just because someone has yard fowl or isn't giving their chicken hormones, doesn't mean it's 'organic'. It's a long list.
"We import and sell a 100 per cent organic chicken from the US; however, it's fairly expensive, mainly due to cost of the product out of the US and the 61 per cent duty we have to pay here in Trinidad. Santa Fe Farms chicken gets close...The major difference is that the corn being used is not guaranteed non-GMO, which would be required to label it 'full USDA organic,'" he said.
Is growing your own
chicken really viable?
Agricultural Economist Omardath Maharaj said many conversations on home gardening often ignore the possibility of meat or fish production at a subsistence level, except perhaps for the tilapia push.
"Certainly, we are in a time which demands that people see a return to the land and self-sufficiency, which allows a focus on personal health and savings," he said.
He said given urban and suburban living arrangements, it may be relatively difficult to comfortably raise chickens, but if you save on the budget by growing more food plants, then it allows more flexibility and rationality about what can and should be purchased.
Maharaj said the country needs to incentivise and inform the market concentration, and needs to build capacity for entry or expansion in chicken farming.
"The capacity of the food production sector to produce has been allowed to dwindle," he commented, "while the imperative to produce is struck with the ebb and flow of the economy and random exposes similar to the 2013 horse meat scandal in Europe."