Against the grain
Accusations that substandard wheat has been imported from Russia have forced the government to propose new food safety measures, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
The joint committees of industry and legislative affairs are scheduled next week to debate a new government bill aimed at toughening food safety measures and stemming the tide of substandard food products on the market. Minister of Industry and Trade Rachid Mohamed Rachid said, "the bill reflects government interest in safeguarding the country against imports of substandard food and strengthening the role of those agencies entrusted with implementing food safety measures."
According to Mohamed Abul-Enein, chairman of the People's Assembly's Industry Committee, the market currently suffers from lax application of food safety measures. "There is little real coordination among the 17 agencies in charge of implementing food safety measures and many laws currently in effect are contradictory," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The new bill aims to create a single central agency to enforce food safety regulations.
Abul-Enein estimates that the treatment of diseases resulting from consumption of low-quality food costs the government LE5 billion a year.
The Shura Council opened the debate on food quality in Egypt on Monday with members arguing there is a pressing need to toughen penalties against importers of low- quality food products.
"At least 80 per cent of substandard food in Egypt comes from overseas," said Mohamed Farid Khamis, chairman of the Shura Council's Industry Committee. "Importers should face much harsher penalties."
The debate followed complaints that wheat unfit for human consumption had entered the country without proper quality control approvals. In a statement on 11 May independent MP Mustafa Bakri alleged that a shipment of 25,500 tonnes of substandard Russian had entered Egypt illegally.
"Initially," said Bakri, "the shipment was rejected by Port Said authorities." Not long afterwards the shipment entered the Red Sea port of Safaga where "it received approval despite containing impurities above the allowed limit".
The shipment, Bakri continued, was imported by Egyptian Traders, a private sector company that regularly imports wheat for the Ministry of Industry and Internal Trade's main wheat buyer, the General Authority for Supply Commodities (GASC).
Bakri has lodged a complaint with the prosecutor-general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, asking him to bar Russian wheat from the local market and summon the officials responsible for importing it for questioning. On 14 May Mahmoud ordered that all Russian wheat imports be checked for quality. A statement issued by his office said a committee, including professors from Cairo University's Faculty of Agriculture, had been formed to test 52,501 tonnes of Russian wheat at the Red Sea port of Safaga.
Bakri's statement sparked mixed reactions in government circles. Minister of State for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab said it was up to the prosecutor-general to determine whether wheat shipments were spoiled.
"We must refrain from issuing a final verdict and wait until the committee formed by the prosecutor-general Mahmoud has a final say," said Shehab. He insisted that the government "is always ready to put corrupt people importing low- quality food on trial".
Minister of Agriculture Amin Abaza said the Central Administration for Agricultural Quarantine had refused to distribute the Russian wheat shipment before Bakri delivered his statement after finding it contained impurities above the allowed limits.
The Ministry of Health, the General Authority for Control of Exports and Imports (GACEI) and the Central Administration of Agricultural Quarantine are together responsible for checking food imports.
GACEI Chairman Mohamed El-Banna said in a public statement on 15 May that checks of the Russian wheat had found it was fit for human consumption.
"All the concerned authorities," said El-Banna, "have given the Russian wheat shipment the required approvals, pending Agricultural Quarantine's order it be sifted for impurities. This is why the shipment was allowed to enter Safaga, to be stored in silos before purification."
El-Banna said GACEI had offered the prosecutor-general all the documents showing "the shipment of Russian wheat is completely fit for human consumption".
Said El-Hefni, GASC's deputy chairman, insists importers implicated in buying low-quality wheat face prosecution.
Bakri told Al-Ahram Weekly that "officials in Safaga had shown him documents relating to the low-quality Russian wheat".
"The shipment was approved by GACEI and health quarantine but was rejected by agricultural quarantine," said Bakri. "It is the latter that emphasised the Russian wheat is of very low quality and is usually used as fodder for cattle in Russia and not for human consumption."
Bakri accuses GASC officials of using their influence to secure the final release of the Russian wheat in violation of health regulations. On 12 May the prosecutor-general summoned officials from GASC and the private sector Egyptian Traders for questioning.
Arkady Zlochevsky, head of the Russian Grain Union, insists "all the wheat that Russia ships to Egypt meets the conditions, including grade and quality, specified in export contracts". According to Zlochevsky, detaining the wheat was an attempt to push up prices. "The problem is not quality but an attempt to increase prices," he said.
Egypt is the world's second largest importer of wheat. It bought over five million tonnes of wheat through GASC in fiscal year 2008/2009, most of it from Russia.