EU to adopt and review SPS measures

Today I publish a guest article, written by my friend Francesco Montanari, Senior Associate at FARE (Food and Agriculture Requirements) and specialist in public affairs and relations, consultancy and legal counselling at EU-level, with particular focus on trade, labelling and food regulatory issues.

A)      EU ban on citrus fruit from South Africa

Early this December the EU adopted a ban on imports of citrus fruit, including lemons, oranges and tangerines, from South Africa. The ban follows several interceptions by EU Member States of imports from South Africa infested by black spot (Guignardia citricarpa). Black spot is a fungal plant disease that, although harmless to humans, can damage quality and quantity of citrus cultivation. Black spot is not present in Europe currently, thus its introduction may have a negative impact on European crops.

The ban is likely to have virtually no impact on trade for the time being: effectively, it applies only to imports harvested over the period 2012-2013. The EU, though, has the power to extend of the ban should the risk of spreading persist. Under those circumstances, impact on trade would be significant since exports of citrus fruit from that country accounts for one third of all EU imports.

The ban was adopted following discussions and negotiations at EU level in 2013. It is understood that South African government strongly opposed closure of EU borders to its exports for lack of conclusive scientific evidence as to the likelihood of the fungus spreading from picked fruit.

South Africa is not the only country that is currently subject to EU trade restrictions for exports of citrus fruit. Brazil, another major exporter of citrus fruits, has been subject since 2004 to specific import conditions to ensure consignments destined to imports in the EU are free from black spot (Decision 2004/417/EC as recently amended by Decision 2013/67/EU).

B) EU border surveillance on fruits and vegetables imported from non-EU countries

Always this month, the EU has updated the list of imported fruits and vegetables that are subject to reinforced border surveillance under Regulation (EC) No 669/2009. Following the fourteenth review of Annex I to that Regulation, the EU is planning to lift, as of 1 January 2014, border controls on:

  • hazelnuts from Azerbaijan (currently subject 10% of physical checks),
  • mace from Indonesia (10%) and India (10%),
  • ginger and curcuma from India (10%) –  all for possible contamination with aflatoxins, as well as
  • broccoli from Thailand (10%) for possible presence of pesticide residues.

Some of these products have been subject to increased levels of border controls for nearly four years. Overall, the relaxation of border surveillance is justified in light of the satisfactory levels of compliance emerging from the results of official controls performed by EU Member States. Nevertheless, controls will continue to be carried by national authorities – at the point of introduction, import or in the market – in accordance with what foreseen by Article 15 (1) of Regulation 882/2004 on official controls on food and feed.

Notwithstanding the announced changes, several imports will remain subject to a higher level of official controls at EU borders. Currently, China is the country with more products listed, including noodles (10% increased physical checks for detecting unauthorised use of aluminium), pomelos and tea (20% for pesticide residues) and frozen strawberries (5% for norovirus and hepatitis A).

C)      Emergency measures on certain imports of plant origin

Negotiations are currently ongoing at EU level in order to review Regulation (EC) 1152/2009 setting import conditions for certain products presenting a high risk of aflatoxins and Regulation (EU) No 91/2013 imposing import requirements on products of plant origin originating from Ghana, Nigeria and India.

As regards Regulation 1152/2009, amendments currently under discussion revolve around:

  • Extension of the scope of the measures to the products listed also when they are imported as feed,
  • Increase of the control intensity of identity and physical checks for certain products (dried figs from Turkey), reduction of frequency for others  (Brazilian nuts and hazelnuts from Turkey) and some delisting (US almonds),
  • The obligation for custom authorities to meticulously verify the content and the appropriate filling of the Common Entry Document accompanying the consignment (this in order to avoid imports being released for free circulation before official controls are completed).

As regards Regulation 91/2013, this safeguard measure foresees import requirements for products that were originally subject to Regulation 669/2009 and for which border controls showed very high levels of non-compliances.  The measure currently covers

  • Okra and curry leaves from India (pesticide residues),
  • Groundnuts and derived products from Ghana (aflatoxins)
  • Watermelon seeds from Nigeria (aflatoxins).

and allows importation of the above products only upon presentation by the importer of a health certificate and of results of laboratory tests performed in the country of origin.

An amendment currently under discussion would consider moving products that are listed for aflatoxins in Regulation 91/2013 to Regulation 1152/2009 since the controls follow the same rules. In principle, this should ensure greater consistency in the management of import policy on products of plant origin by the EU as well as in the implementation by the national control authorities.

D) Emerging risks?

Browsing the RASFF database is always an interesting exercise: it allows monitoring emerging and re-occurring risks. As regards imports of plant origin originating from non-EU countries, it is striking to look at the number of RASFF notifications for paan leaves from Bangladesh for presence of Salmonella (2012: 110 RASFF notifications; 2013: 23 notifications). Paan leaves are a traditional product that mostly Indian or Bangladeshi communities chew after meals.

Although the health risk associated with this product may be not of great concern and trade volume relatively low, it is difficult to justify the lack of action at EU level vis-à-vis a product that systematically fails to fulfil EU requirements.

Whether this issue would be better addressed through the adoption of an EU ban, stringent import requirements and/or by providing technical assistance to the exporting country, only EU policy-makers can provide these answers.

From the outside, however, it looks as if better use could be made of the resources currently deployed by the national authorities for the detection of a risk that is by now clearly ‘known’. By doing so, a better prioritisation of official controls would be ensured.

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