Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Worries over strawberries

A US investigation into contaminated strawberries that it is claimed can be traced to Egypt has had the country’s exporters worried, reports Niveen Wahish

Al-Ahram Weekly

“The bullet that does not hit its target makes a huge sound” goes an Egyptian proverb, basically translating as “an accusation that may not be right nonetheless tarnishes reputations.”

This is what Egyptian exporters of processed and non-processed agricultural goods fear following an announcement by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that it is investigating if some 100 individuals diagnosed with hepatitis A contracted it from strawberries of Egyptian origin at a local café in the United States.

According to the FDA, the ill people purchased smoothies at Tropical Smoothie Cafés in some areas of the US, including Virginia and neighbouring states.

“The FDA’s investigation into the source and distribution of the strawberries is ongoing. The agency has been in touch with the Egyptian International Health Regulations National Focal Point to discuss the investigation,” the FDA said on its Website.  

“The FDA is working to identify other parts of the relevant supply chain and will take appropriate action as necessary. However, the FDA is prohibited by law in most situations from releasing publicly confidential commercial information about supply chains. The FDA has initiated increased surveillance of imported strawberries and will provide more information as it becomes available,” it added.

While no ban has been imposed, Egyptian exporters are apprehensive that negative news could have repercussions on the whole agricultural sector, Aly Eissa, head of the Egyptian Businessmen’s Association, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

A potato exporter himself, Eissa said that Egyptian processed and non-processed agricultural goods were thoroughly checked by various authorities to make sure they confirmed to the standards and specifications of importing countries.  

“It remains to be seen what the investigation will tell us,” he said.

One expert who works in agricultural exports and preferred to remain anonymous said that Egypt did not export fresh strawberries to the US because of their perishability and only exports the fruit in frozen form.

Frozen food is processed in such a way that it is impossible for hepatitis A to be passed on through fruit, he said.

He said the story could be retaliation against Egypt, as it had turned away US soya bean shipments earlier this year for having higher-than-permitted levels of a fungus called ambrosia.

The bean is one of the top US exports to Egypt. According to the Foreign Agricultural Service of the US Department of Agriculture, the US exported nearly $1.9 billion of food and agricultural products to Egypt in 2014, including corn, beef, and dairy products.

What worries exporters is that Egypt is approaching the strawberry harvest which starts in November, and exports are a vital source of hard currency as other sources such as tourism have been hard hit over the past five years.

Total Egyptian exports of fruit and nuts to the US reached around $5 million from July 2014 to March 2015, according to the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) figures.

Another exporter who also preferred anonymity did not believe in the conspiracy theories. Whether the investigation confirmed the claims or not, the case of the strawberries had drawn attention to the need for food safety laws and a related authority to oversee food safety issues in Egypt, he commented.

Food safety procedures needed to be more thoroughly applied to ensure the hygiene of food, whether for export or local consumption, he said.

Amina Ghanem, executive director of the Egyptian National Competitiveness Council, agreed, saying that there was more than one authority overseeing food safety, including the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Export Import Supervision Authority.

Each of these applies different standards, and this could create confusion, she said. “The standards must be unified under one law and one authority,” she added, in order to ensure food safety until food reaches the consumer.

A food safety law has been in the pipeline for over 10 years and is said to have been approved by the cabinet in June. However, it has yet to be presented to parliament.

“If the processes are in place and are followed properly there will not be a problem with food safety,” Ghanem said. She added that food safety was crucial to competitiveness because if tourists did not feel safe eating in Egypt they could avoid the country out of fears for their health, for example.

On the domestic level, health issues related to food could mean working time could be lost among individuals, damaging productivity and leading to greater spending on healthcare.

The FDA investigation has prompted other importers of Egyptian agricultural goods to do the same. While the Saudi Food and Drugs Authority is reported to have cleared frozen Egyptian strawberries, the UAE and Jordan have not made an announcement on the matter.

The case of the strawberries also drew attention to an import alert list issued regularly by the FDA. The list includes several products from around 20 Egyptian companies containing pesticides above the levels permitted by the US. It also lists hundreds of other companies from countries across the globe. Chinese companies have the lion’s share of the list.

But the FDA list should not cause undue worry, said the anonymous exporter. “Most of the products date to before 2014,” he said, adding that the FDA produced its list on a daily basis and there was no intention to target Egyptian exporters.

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