POSTSCRIPT / January 15, 2009 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Deft crisis management on food issues pays off

STABLE PRICES: Many housewives have noticed that while the demand for foodstuff traditionally goes up during the Yule season — with prices rising as a result — prices generally stood last December and in fact continue to be stable.

As one report in last Tuesday’s issue said, with the exception of pork, prices of basic foodstuff like sardines, canned meat products, fish and instant noodles have remained steady since December.

Quoting the Department of Trade and Industry, the STAR report also noted that canned sardines in tomato sauce were still priced between P12 and P12.50 per 155-gram can.

Department of Agriculture data, on the other hand, showed that the price of galunggong — a price barometer of sorts — went down by 16.67 percent to P100 per kilo from P120. Prices of vegetables like tomato and cabbage also dropped.

The prices of poultry, sugar, cooking oil and rice (which costs between P30 to P42 a kilo for commercial varieties) have also been stable, although that of pork liempo went up to P180 a kilo from P170 in mid-December.

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CONSULTATION: This did not happen by accident. Now it can be told that the prices of most basic goods remained stable and their supply adequate largely due to the efforts of the agriculture department under Secretary Arthur Yap.

Acting on instructions of President Gloria Arroyo, Yap conducted supply-price dialogues with producers and merchants ahead of the holidays to help keep prime commodities within the reach of the average Filipino.

For instance, when prices of such basic food as pork began to rise to as high as P170 a kilo before the holidays, Yap immediately met with livestock industry stakeholders to work out a “reference price” band for liempo and other prime pork cuts at P140 to P150 a kilo.

He pointed out to hog producers and meat processors the wide disparity between the farm gate and retail prices of the commodity and to do something about it.

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EBOLA VIRUS: The 5-percent spike in pork prices was not really that bad, given the apparently successful efforts by the DA and the Department of Health to nip a possible pork scare arising from the reported detection last December of the Ebola Reston virus in local swine.

Many people associate “Ebola” with death. Hollywood movies like Dustin Hoffman’s “Outbreak” portray persons bleeding to death from the Ebola virus.

Informing the people that the virus was spotted in even only a few hogs could have caused undue alarm if Yap, in tandem with Health Secretary Francisco Duque, had not acted swiftly in dealing with the issue before making a public announcement on it.

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COUNTER-STEPS: Still, the DA treated its reported emergence as an important concern. It promptly announced the presence of the virus in two farms — in Pangasinan and in Bulacan — and the steps that the department had taken.

Yap quarantined the affected farms. He directed the Bureau of Animal Industry to set up checkpoints to monitor the transport of hogs and pork, and the National Meat Inspection Service to check for contaminated pork meat in the market and slaughterhouses.

To show the Philippines to be a responsible exporter, Yap suspended the country’s first ever pork export to Singapore until the Reston problem was fully checked, although the sources of the hog exports had already passed global food safety standards and Singapore’s stringent requirements.

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WHO-FAO HELP: On Yap’s instructions, the BAI also called on the Office International des Epizooties, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization to conduct a “risk assessment” on the presence of the Reston virus.

The BAI also asked FAO for help in testing 10,000 head of domestic swine for the Ebola virus, in tracing the possible source of the infection, and setting up diagnostic, prevention and communications plans to eradicate the threat.

The fact that pork prices remained steady and even rose slightly during the holidays showed that the DA under Yap handled the Reston issue competently.

Had the Ebola issue been mishandled, consumers would have avoided pork and its price would have hit rock bottom.

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Dr. Soe Nyunt-U, the WHO country representative to the Philippines, spoke on behalf of the WHO, FAO and OIE in lauding Yap and Duque for their quick and “appropriate action” in dealing with this concern.

Among those present during the meeting with livestock industry leaders when Nyunt said this were Dr. Julie Hall, leader of the WHO Emerging Infectious Diseases Division; Anthony Hazzard, WHO regional adviser for Food Safety; Carolyn Anne Coulombe, WHO technical officer (Risk Communications), Communicable Disease Surveillance and Response; and Remigio Olveda, director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine.

In a pre-Christmas executive session between Yap and over 50 industry leaders, Rene Eleria, president of the National Hog Federation Inc., said that the livestock sector “recognizes that you (Yap) did well in terms of disease control this year and we hope that you will continue to enhance what you are doing well in 2009.”

A major newspaper editorialized that the response of authorities to the resurfacing of the Reston virus “has, thus far, proved unassailable,” that it had “succeeded in calming public fears” and delivered a message that the government “take(s) public-health concerns very seriously.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 15, 2009)

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