Richard North, 28/04/2014  

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A good spot in the Mail on Sunday brings to our attention an impending ban by the EU of Indian mangos, "the exotic fruit known for its sweet, perfumed flesh", adored by top chefs such as Gordon Ramsay.

Sadly, only the briefest explanation of the reason for the ban is given, this being: "fears that shipments contain a pest that could destroy British tomato and cucumber crops". The ban, we are told, has been introduced because some mango shipments have contained tobacco whitefly, which could affect Britain's £320-million-a-year salad industry.

It is a great pity that the information on the background is so slight because more detail could provide important insights into the workings of the EU – on the one hand providing sustenance to Europhiles but, on the other, giving the anti-EU movement important information of the sort needed to fuel a comprehensive "Brexit" plan.

We'll have a look at those issues in a moment, but it's first interesting to look at how the MoS has treated the ban.

"The news", it says, "has infuriated Asian shopkeepers and restaurant owners, who stand to lose thousands of pounds due to a European-wide ban on the fruit that begins on Thursday. About 16 million mangos from India are imported by the UK in a market worth nearly £6million a year".

Then we get some boilerplate reaction comment. Monica Bhandari, of importers Fruity Fresh (Western) Ltd, based in West London, is cited, saying her firm would lose out significantly, She adds: "It's madness. Mangos will be burned in India because there will be no market for them".

Jay Rayarel, manager at ATC Retail in Leicester, which sells 36,000 alphonso mangos a week when they are in season, said his firm would lose business worth £200,000, adding: "The ban will be devastating".

That much of the story, however, is ill-informed. Taking a look at the Indian Press, we learn that there has been a partial failure of the mango crop, due to late rains. Quantities are down, prices are up and farmers are having difficulty meeting the demand. In the short-term, the EU ban will not be noticed.

On the sub-continent, however, the press hasn't been that forthcoming either. The Times of India reported the ban on 15 March, eleven days before the formal announcement by the Commission.

Nevertheless, there was no great drama, no rending of clothes or gnashing of teeth. Omkar Sapre, an agriculture advisor, thought the ban might not impact at all. "Only ten percent of Indian mangoes are exported to European market", he said. "Gulf is the major market for Indian mangoes. But the local market will benefit more. Europeans import mangoes from Pakistan and Mexico at cheaper rates".

As it turns out, the ban of little significance to the Indians, and the European market will probably obtain its supplies from other sources. Pakistan has already had a yellow card but has plenty of potential.

The country exported 140,000 tons in 2013, which was only eight percent of its total production. Up to 30 percent was wasted due to multiple reasons ranging from primitive agricultural techniques to lack of adequate processing and storage facilities. And, if Pakistan can't deliver, China seems to have product to spare.

As to the ban on Indian mango, the Times of India tells us it came about because "exporters failed to meet the new stringent guidelines on health, hygiene and durability issued by European market regulators".

That, though, is a less than truthful account of what transpired. In The Hindu gives details, form the EU press relase. Pests that are not native to Europe had been found in 207 fruit and vegetable consignments from the subcontinent in 2013, posing a very real threat to EU agriculture and production.

But, before taking its drastic action, the Commission had sent its Food and Veterinary Office inspectors (its own corps of food police) to India who in 2013 had produced a highly critical report on the production and storage standards.

"The system of export controls for plant health in India, and, in particular at the main point of exit for fresh produce exported to the EU (Mumbai airport)", the inspectors stated, "offers no assurance with regard to the pest status of consignments or compliance with the EU import requirements, or relevant international standards".

The audit had been carried out between 17-26 April 2013 and had been the second audit on this topic. Both had been undertaken in response to continued interceptions of harmful organisms in consignments of plants exported from India to the EU, as well as non-compliant wood packaging material (WPM). But, since the previous audit in 2010, the number of such interceptions had continued to increase.

The EU, therefore, had been perfectly justified in banning the Indian produce – and is to review the ban in 2015. But the fascinating thing is, in instigating the ban, the Commission was relying on Council Directive 2000/29/EC on protective measures against the introduction into the Community of organisms harmful to plants or plant products and against their spread within the Community.

And this, it turns out, relies on the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) of 6 December 1951 concluded at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Rome. Thus, the EU was effectively implementing an international agreement.

From the point of view of an exit strategy, therefore, as signatories to the IPPC the UK would have no problems initiating a similar ban, and would not need to rely on the EU to take action.

On the other hand, the reason the problem came to light was through EUROPHYT, the European Union Notification System for Plant Health Interceptions. This network connects Plant Health Authorities of the EU Member States and Switzerland, the European Food Safety Authority and the Directorate General for Health and Consumers of the European Commission, costing over €1 million to administer, one of ten such databases which, collectively, cost European taxpayers €11 million a year.

Through the TRACES system – which also includes the EEA – problems are identified. These trigger FVO reports, which then form the basis of a mechanism for imposing a Europe-wide ban. This last stage is done on the basis of a Commission proposal, approved by the Plant Health Standing Committee (comprising Member State Delegates) and then rubber stamped by Council..

From a Europhile perspective, this is a classic example of the Single Market in action at its best, providing a service at a European level that could not be managed as efficiently by individual member states. Of nearly 7,000 notifications in 2012, the UK supplied less than 1,400, so the magnifier effect is evident. The most notifications come from Germany.

Then, of course, the FVO inspectors carry out the inspection functions in India and elsewhere in the world, functions which the UK would have to carry out (and fund directly) if it was not part of the EU system. Before joining the EU, the UK did have its own network of overseas inspectors. Either we would have to re-instate this system or remain part of the EU system.

Clearly, it would be far more expensive to furnish an entirely national system, and without the more extensive data gathering capability, this would not function as well as the EU's system. Thus, for the Europhiles, there is at least one reason for staying in the EU. For us exiters, though, this is another factor to take into account when we draw up our definitive plan.

As for the Indians, they don't seem right bothered, but Gordon Ramsay may have to pay a lot more before he can savour any more sweet, perfumed flesh.


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