According to Trevin Nairne, export manager with Jamaica Broilers, throughout the Caribbean B-grade chicken is being imported from the US "that clearly is being dumped". Meanwhile, Brazilian, Mexican and Chilean chicken is also entering the regional market.
Nairne wondered how it is possible that a large facility such as Jamaica Broilers, which produces high quality products, exists in the region and yet inferior quality chicken is allowed to enter the regional market.
During several events at the Caribbean Week of Agriculture 2016 in the Cayman Islands, representatives of international and regional institutions, policymakers and farmers lamented the fact that unhealthy foods especially are entering the Caribbean in staggering amounts.
Desmond Ali, executive director of the Caribbean Poultry Association (CPA), said that for some time the organization has raised its concerns regarding the influx of chicken from outside the region.
He stressed that "a lot of poultry is coming illegally into the region from places as Brazil, which are not approved exporters into the region". There are also concerns about "dark meat such as leg quarters, backs and necks that is coming from the US".
According to Ali, the US currently has around one billion pounds of dark meat in frozen stock, which had to be sold somewhere since countries as Russia and China dropped the amount of dark meat that they used to import from the US. Russia used to buy one million pounds a year but that has dropped to 300,000 pounds.
"So the US has to send this dark meat somewhere and we in the Caribbean are one of the markets that they are coveting," Ali said.
He warned that the region should be "extremely careful and cautious about defending our industry". With sales reaching US$650 million a year, employing about 135,000 people and a production of 286,000 metric tonnes of meat, the poultry industry is the largest agri-business in the Caribbean, "larger than most agri-businesses put together".
"We are a big industry in terms of our socio-economic impact and we need to defend that industry," the CPA official said.
In a bid to prevent illegal and sub-standard cheap products from interfering and disrupting the regional market, a Caribbean poultry meat standard was developed and subsequently approved by the Caribbean Regional Organization for Standards and Quality. The CARICOM Council on Trade and Economic Development (COTED) approved these standards in December 2012.
These standards should now be implemented throughout the region, said Ali. Two important components of these standards are that: any meat that has been frozen cannot be thawed and sold as chilled meat, nor can it be thawed and refrozen.
"Secondly we are saying that any meat that is more than 180 days old cannot be sold for human consumption," Ali noted.
The CPA is seeing poultry meat from outside the region "that's two and three and four years old", which is posing serious health risks for consumers. The CPA chief further said that the organization is also looking into phytosanitary measures to block unwanted products from entering the region.
Speaking to journalists, Caribbean sub-regional director of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Lystra Fletcher-Paul, noted that countries in the region should seriously consider measures to prevent the importation of certain unhealthy foods once they are in a position to produce healthier substitutes.
She said that while the food import bill of CARICOM nations reached almost US$5 billion annually, at the same time the peoples in these countries are eating themselves to death with the extra-regional food. Hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are the deadliest health issues in the Caribbean, she said.
The FAO representative stressed that, when the region can produce and transport high quality food that can substitute for imported products, restriction mechanisms should be put in place to keep certain foods out.
According to Fletcher-Paul, within the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) there is room for countries to ban certain foods. Government entities such as the ministries of agriculture and foreign affairs should have closer cooperation, which would enable the countries to take advantage of the WTO rules.
According to Nairne, there need to be some kind of guideline or re-evaluation of what currently exists to determine what kind of food, including poultry, is suitable to enter the Caribbean market. The region, he added, could be saving money or spend the money within the region to raise poultry "here to help us grow".
The manager stressed that, if the regional farmers increase production, the price of chicken would certainly drop.
"As you know, with increasing scale, the unit prices will drop, which clearly means that the more we produce the more affordable the chicken will be," he said.
Three years ago, Jamaica Broilers was operating only in Jamaica, now it is in six countries selling "hormone-free" products. Nairne noted that, while poultry farms in the region are under strict veterinary monitoring and regulation about what is being exported, such is not the case regarding chicken that is brought to the Caribbean.
Although farmers don't have a direct influence on discussions in COTED, the manager hoped that the "government officials would speak on our behalves" at the CARICOM table.
He argued that some tax mechanism should be put in place to protect regional producers from the influx of cheaper "heavily subsided" products from outside the Caribbean.
Jamaica Broilers, which produces 'The Best Dressed Chicken' brand, is currently producing 800 to 900 tonnes of chicken weekly, which according to the manager could be easily increased to 2-3,000 since the production facilities are underutilized.
Nairne said that his company offers numerous jobs to people from all over the Caribbean, including Guyana, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago and the Cayman Islands. He lamented that the money that is being spend on imported chicken doesn't flow back to region.