By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A $10m poultry farming investor yesterday expressed confidence that The Bahamas could follow Jamaica’s self-sufficiency lead despite its “concerns” over WTO’s potential impact.
Dr Allen Albury, the Bahamas Striping Group’s managing director, told Tribune Business that anti-dumping protections would be as important as tariff safeguards to itself and other local producers in the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) rules-based environment.
Confirming the group’s plans to develop poultry farms and processing facilities on Andros and Eleuthera, together with a New Providence distribution centre, Dr Albury said he and fellow principals had been left “stunned” and “shocked” by the quality of chicken being supplied to Bahamian consumers.
Disclosing that Bahamas Striping’s market research had revealed some chicken was being sold up to five years past its “kill date”, he added that the results had reinforced the group’s belief that it could persuade local consumers to “migrate” to the fresh, healthy product it was targeting.
Dr Albury said the 150 million pounds of chicken consumed annually by Bahamians meant there was ample room for local producers to claim their fair share of the market, once consumers were educated about the product’s merits and labour/energy cost challenges mitigated.
Poultry production, though, is one area that has already attracted attention from The Bahamas’ major trading partners in the WTO accession talks. Zhivargo Laing, this nation’s chief negotiator, revealed that The Bahamas was already being asked to reduce tariffs on poultry imports below the level submitted in its opening offer.
Asked why Bahamas Striping was targeting a market set to be impacted by tax and regulatory uncertainty, Dr Albury said tariffs were not the only means of protection that could help local producers as he called for a strong partnership between industry and the government.
“We have some concerns that exist, but we’ve looked at Jamaica,” he told Tribune Business. “It is a member of the WTO, and they have been successful to bring themselves to near 100 percent sustainability in terms of poultry production within the WTO framework.
“What it’s going to require is support from the government, in partnership with the growers and the poultry producers. The government has to partner with the growing community to ensure WTO does not have an adverse effect.
“We’re paying attention to what is being said, paying attention to the Government’s posture, and will make adjustments to our posture as we go.”
Dr Albury then added that “the real issue” for Bahamian producers was exposed by Bahamas Striping’s market research over the past two years, which found imported chicken “five years past its kill date” was being sold to consumers.
“It’s more a dumping ground for the large producers who are members of the WTO,” he said of how foreign supplier treated The Bahamas.
Anti-dumping legislation, and safeguards, are designed to protect local industries and consumers from foreign competitors who use their markets to “dump” inferior, unsafe and poor quality product that undercuts domestic producers on price.
Such protections are required in the WTO’s rules-based trading environment and, if properly legislated and enforced by the Government, could help Bahamian producers better compete on the basis of quality and freshness.
“I can tell you that when we started researching the market, deployed our technicians in the market to start studying, what was shocking was the five-year date of chicken on our shelves,” Dr Albury told Tribune Business. “That was concerning, shocking to our shareholders. On a personal level I purchase only locally-grown chicken after discovering what we discovered.
“The turning point for us was when the surveyors came back, and samples were sent to the laboratories, as we purchased chicken from various wholesalers and retailers. We were absolutely stunned with some of the results that came back.
“Once our education campaign is up and running we will be able to utilise that data so people understand fresh, healthy chicken is the best choice. Part of our strategy is going to be educating the Bahamian people in terms of what they are consuming on one end and give them a more informed choice.”
Dr Albury said Bahamian consumers “may be prepared to pay five cents a pound more for steroid-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free fresh chicken” - a concept that will be central to Bahamas Striping’s strategy.
Suggesting that the consumption of poor quality chicken had added to The Bahamas’ considerable health woes, he added: “We want to make a dent in that, and educate people and give them the choice.
“We believe that once we scale it right, we can deliver fresh, healthy chicken at the same rates - or maybe at a slight difference, not a significant one - as those being produced on the market right now.
“Most consumers, when they get a healthier choice, will migrate. When people are informed, they will migrate to the better quality,” Dr Albury continued. “Bahamians are consuming 150 pounds of poultry every year. The demand exists. Our key, and I can’t stress this enough, Neil, is fresh Bahamian chicken that is free from antibiotics and steroids.”
He conceded that poultry production did not seem “a core business” for Bahamas Striping, founded under the last Ingraham administration with a $5,000 self-starter grant, and which has its roots in road, parking lot and airport striping.
The group has been trying to diversify over the past three years, and is targeting public-private partnership (PPP) contracts; property management and rentals; and the management contract for Junkanoo Beach as new business avenues.
Bahamas Striping also has some distance to travel to bring its poultry ambitions to reality, with its “technical team” set to head Andros in early February to assess potential sites and kickstart Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) studies.
Dr Albury said it preliminary research on the water tables and PH balance of the water has already been conducted, and added: “We’re just at the stage of commencing a full-blown EIA. Once that is completed, it will dictate the timelines moving forward.”
The Andros farming/processing facilities will come online at the same time as the New Providence distribution centre. The former will create 60 full-time jobs between labourers, machine and computer operators and technical staff, with 20 persons required at the Nassau site.
Eleuthera, which will “mirror” the Andros facilities, will be developed at a later date and also create 60 full-time jobs. Dr Albury said part-time workers would be hired during “peak season” when production “ramps up”, with Bahamas Striping keen on two separate islands for production as a means of hurricane insurance.
He added that Bahamas Striping also intended to learn the lessons from failed poultry operations, such as Gladstone Farms and Hatchet Bay Farms, which failed to “adjust” to changing market conditions that eroded their competitiveness.
Renewable energy is being eyed as part of the solution, and Dr Albury said: “This is not just a concern for producers and growers coming into this space. This is one of the biggest concerns for most businesses in this country. The cost of energy is so high that we’re losing our competitive edge, and this is one that has to be fixed.”