EU set to ban SA citrus imports
Fears of fungal disease spreading to continent
BRUSSELS: The EU is preparing a ban on South African citrus imports that could take orange juice off Europe’s breakfast tables next summer and sour efforts in Brussels to broaden South African trade.
The move follows the interception of 35 citrus shipments from South Africa that were contaminated with the fungal black spot disease, which European growers fear could take hold in their citrus groves.
In response, the European Commission was drawing up plans for a ban that could be adopted by European governments by the end of November, said a source.
Another source said EU trade chief Karel De Gucht told South African officials during a visit to Johannesburg this week that the contaminated shipments were “serious and problematic”, and that a response was needed.
South Africa exports about 600 000 tons of citrus fruit to the EU each year, worth about $1.3 billion (R13bn). It is the main source of orange juice for EU consumers in summer.
The dispute comes at a sensitive time because the EU is seeking South Africa’s support to unlock stalled trade deals with sub-Saharan Africa.
During negotiations in South Africa this week, EU officials offered to improve the terms of a bilateral free-trade deal dating from 1999 by granting South African sugar farmers duty-free access to Europe.
For now the planned citrus ban would be largely symbolic, as it would only apply to this year’s South African citrus harvest, which ended in October, meaning EU imports have already stopped.
But the bloc’s food safety watchdog is checking whether the disease has a risk of taking hold in Europe’s estimated 500 000 hectares of citrus groves, and the EU could extend the ban.
The head of the South African Citrus Growers’ Association, Justin Chadwick, warned the commission against a ban.
“Global experts have confirmed that citrus black spot is not a risk, so a ban would seem unnecessary,” he said.
While harmless to humans, citrus black spot causes unsightly lesions on the fruit and leaves of affected plants, reducing both harvest quality and quantity. There is no known cure, but fungicides can be used to control the spread.
It is found in many citrusgrowing regions in the southern hemisphere as well as China and the US, but not in Europe. Since 2011, the number of citrus shipments from South Africa found to contain black spot has averaged about 35 each year.
Following calls by citrus growers in top EU producer Spain to take a tougher stance on the issue, the commission said it would be forced take action if more than five contaminated shipments were intercepted from the country this year.
“Every day, South Africa displays its inability to control the pests in its crop,” Spanish farming association AVAASAJA said. “Political interests prevail over the risk that such imports pose to the future of Europe’s citrus farms.”
In its draft scientific opinion published in July, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) said the chance of citrus black spot taking in hold in Europe was “moderately likely”. But it added there was a high level of uncertainty.
Efsa is due to finalise its assessment this year, and its findings will largely determine what further moves, if any, the commission will take to restrict South African imports.
But a group of citrus black spot experts said it had identified “factual errors and omissions” in Efsa’s draft assessment, and that there was no recorded case of the disease ever having spread via fruit exports. – Reuters
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