South Africa alleges "inconsistent" citrus inspections in Southern Europe
South African delegates will soon be touring several European nations in a bid to clarify citrus black spot (CBS) inspection procedures, which are estimated to be squeezing more than ZAR1 billion (US$86 million) out of the industry each year in associated spraying, market access and fruit deviation costs.
During a CBS briefing at Fruit Logistica in Berlin last week, the Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa's (CGA) special envoy for market access Deon Joubert said the group had obtained documents showing Spain had tested fruit without symptoms this past season.
"As long as South Africa is dealt the same hand as anybody else then there's no problem, but we know the other importing countries didn't have this kind of focus on asymptomatic fruit," the former Capespan exec told the crowd gathered at the South African stand.
"We have official documentation from Spain that says that every South African container will be technically tested for CBS, and that's inconsistent.
"We have had imports cleared of CBS on the border, sold, eaten, finished and then we have two or three weeks later a report of a CBS strike, which is inconsistent with the normal procedure."
Exporters have seen varied detection rates for the disease in the old continent, with a dramatic reduction in interceptions in the Netherlands where similar volumes were able to move through, contrasted with a sharp uptick in strikes from the Mediterranean.
Drawing up an inspection direction
Joubert, along with South African experts and officials, have sought to harmonize inspection practices in a bid to remove these discrepancies. The envoy noted a very productive visit to Dutch and German laboratories in August where the industry was assured it could be confident in handling and testing methods.
"Theoretically on those [labs] we don't have any problems. We had four [interceptions] in Germany, five in Holland, one in the U.K., no issue," he said, adding the total number of interceptions was 28 but the figure was being challenged.
"The concern is to the south. We had what was a very low two [interceptions] go to 18....the problem is in Spain. We had 401 consignments, and we had 10 interceptions."
"Although the legislation on access and trade is harmonized in Europe, the inspection services are the national authority's responsibility. So each country can principally interpret and report as they want."
While changing legislation would be a challenge, the South Africans are doing what they can to standardize procedures on a practical level. Joubert himself plans to visit the inspection services of Spain and Italy at the end of the month to try to reach an agreement.
"We seem to be quite near to agreement in the northern part of Europe," he said.
Additionally, he said the EU's Directorate General for Health and Food Safety (DGSANCO) would be arranging an expert visit with South Africa's Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) to Spain, Italy, Portugal, England and France.
"Then the issue is for South Africa to improve or rectify its performance, we need to know as much as we can from what happened in each individual case."
The industry representative clarified that no decision had yet been made by South Africa to avoid Mediterranean import markets.
"It will not be our recommendation, unless we find it extremely difficult or highly risky to the entire campaign in the middle of June if we have the inconsistent application of rules which will bring a spate of CBS interceptions based on dead genetic material."
The feasibility of viability
While the CGA accepts that the EU has a different scientific opinion on the risk of CBS infection, it is holding the authorities to account for the consequences of their view. The core issue revolves around "viability", which Joubert explained to www.freshfruitportal.com prior to the briefing.
"For Europe to be consistent in terms of their thought process, at least for them to have infection possible you must have something that can infect, so you have to have something that is viable and alive.
"So we've said, 'test the product for viability this year'. If you get an interception, cut the lesion out and grow a live culture. If you can grow a fungus, then at least we would know that theoretically there is something to start the process with."
He told participants at the briefing that after adopting this method, authorities were only able to find one viable culture out of 28 CBS interceptions, with the fruit in question detected in Nancy, France.
"Our argument is that because of the sprays and the inspection, and the fact we've got an ethephon test for viability at the packhouse level, we've reduced CBS symptoms dramatically," Joubert told www.freshfruitportal.com.
"If you have traces of CBS on arrival here, that’s fine in the sense of a viable culture. That’s the principle that DGSANCO accepted, but it’s not applied as such," he said during the briefing.
"The solution at the moment seems to be to get an agreement on a national level for 2015 that the individual inspection services of the member countries will report CBS on finding a viable organism."
And then there's Russia
South Africa's inspection circumstances in Europe have been compounded by the Russian ban on EU fruit, as rejected fruit can no longer just be sent to St Petersburg as an alternative option.
"What we've found is that if they've exported to Europe and the authorities would stop the export due to say symptoms of CBS, then you've got a problem because principally it's imported," Joubert said.
"Then you have to re-export and you can’t do that with European product. So it loses nationality in that moment.
"I'd say we’d do 12-15% with Russia so the majority would be set up to go to Russia directly in any case. But that option if something goes wrong to then send to Russia has been jeopardized."
He said the drop in the ruble has not only had an impact on exporter returns in the Russian market, but the overal negative state of the economy has also led to heightened levels of non-payment.
"Even though the fall happened after the product was received, it had a massive effect on the negativity of the payments.
"It always takes 10-16 weeks after export that you usually get paid. The Russian shipments are late, towards the end of the season, so it had a profound effect on the payment.
"There are a lot of guys who have not yet received their payment, so that effect has been severe."