Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Wednesday,20 March, 2019
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Zero tolerance on ergot

Rows over Egypt’s specifications for wheat imports have resurfaced, reports Mona El-Fiqi  


Last week the Cairo Administrative Court banned imports of wheat that contain traces of ergot, a toxic fungus, from entering Egypt. In September 2016, the cabinet issued a decree to accept wheat containing 0.05 per cent ergot, abandoning the zero-tolerance policy it had adopted a few weeks earlier. This decree has now been overturned.  

In 2016, the zero-ergot policy led major international wheat suppliers to boycott tenders from the General Authority for Supplies and Commodities (GASC), the state’s major wheat buyer. Tarek Al-Awady, the lawyer who filed the suit against the prime minister and ministries of health, agriculture, and supply this year, accused them of permitting wheat imports that contain traces of ergot fungus, which he said threatened public health.

The court said in its ruling on Tuesday that the prime minister was not legally authorised to issue decrees relating to agricultural import rules. “The government’s decision to allow ergot-contaminated wheat into the country despite the threat to public health violates its promise to respect the constitution and the law and to provide a healthy environment,” the ruling noted.  

However, the Court’s decision has not yet been enforced and shipments of imported wheat are currently being inspected according to the 0.05 per cent ergot specification, according to Nasr Noamani, an advisor to the minister of supply and internal trade.  

Noamani told Al-Ahram Weekly that the court’s ruling would be sent to a jury in order to issue a date for its enforcement. The government would be given a chance to appeal, he said.  

He explained that the ruling was based on problems in the administrative part of the prime minister’s decision. “It has nothing to do with the details of the technical quarantine regulations,” he said. The legal affairs departments of the ministries of health, supply and agriculture would soon start to deal with the decision, he added.

All government authorities should work together to avoid any misinterpretation of the ruling that could lead to instability in the markets.

Last Thursday, the GASC held its last international purchase tender for wheat. “It concluded deals to buy 120,000 tons and 240,000 tons of wheat at reasonable prices and according to the international specifications of 0.05 per cent ergot tolerance. By conducting such deals, the government succeeded in sending a sign of stability and confidence to the international markets,” Noamani said.      

He added that the ministry of health had reported that 0.05 per cent ergot wheat is safe for human consumption and that it does not harm public health. This standard is in accordance with World Health Organisation rules, he said.

The controversy is related to agricultural quarantine specifications. Noamani said that imported wheat specifications were different according to the use of wheat (for human consumption or seeds for cultivation). If diseased seeds were planted, the ergot might be transferred to local wheat.   

As a result, the agriculture ministry has the right to request zero tolerance of ergot in cases of importing wheat seeds to protect local harvests and not for wheat used for human consumption, Noamani said.  

The ministry of supply has been committed to applying requirements decided by both the health and agricultural ministries in wheat-purchasing contracts. Moreover, “all shipments of imported wheat undergo a purification process that reduces the presence of the fungus to zero per cent with the approval of the agricultural quarantine sector,” Noamani said.

Imported wheat is inspected twice, once in its state of origin and once in Egyptian ports. In the past, representatives from the ministries of health, agriculture and the Organisation for Export and Import Controls used to inspect the wheat. However, more recently the government has changed the system and contracted international companies to inspect the imported wheat abroad and ensure that it is in compliance with Egyptian standards.

Wheat importers are worried about the court’s decision. Ahmed Shiha, chairman of the importers division at the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Commerce, said that any changes in the imports specifications should be included in contracts with wheat suppliers and not imposed when cargos are already in Egyptian ports.  

He said that when the court ruling goes into effect the government should permit the entrance of shipments concluded according to the current specifications at 0.05 per cent ergot.

Shiha added that “importers will be obliged to increase prices if zero-ergot regulations are applied since prices change according to specifications in the international markets. Prices will go up as importers will keep their usual profit margins.”

The position has been complicated by the court’s ruling. Last year when Egypt changed its regulations to zero ergot and Russian wheat imports stopped, the Russian government reiterated by banning Egyptian agricultural exports.

This scenario might be repeated with other countries this year. Experts are worried that if the ban is implemented, it could lead to a lack of wheat in Egypt and high premiums on imports.

Egypt is a major player in the international wheat markets since it is ranked first in the world in importing wheat and the biggest buyer of Russian milling wheat. Since the beginning of the 2017-2018 marketing year on 1 July, the GASC has purchased 3.6 million tons of wheat, including 2.7 million tons from Russia.  

In October alone Egypt purchased more than 610,000 tons of wheat from Russia. The GASC provides wheat to be used in producing subsidised bread to around 70 million ration-card holders.

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