ANFACO, the group that represents Spanish tuna canners, considers Thai health authorities perform lax controls over the canned tuna that is exported on to the EU markets. ANFACO is therefore requesting that the EC withdraw its approval of these authorities as being competent to deliver health certificates – without which Thai canned tuna cannot enter the European market.
This controversy came about because canned tuna from Thailand was notified by the DG SANCO Rapid Alert System 22 times last year for failing to meet EU health standards, and blocked at EU borders. The main problem was the inadequate heat treatment for sterilisation – a process that ensures the destruction of the bacteria producing the deadly botulism toxins. For ANFACO, ‘this seriously jeopardises the safety of the end canned product canned for human consumption.’
The reaction from the Spanish processing sector occurred after a European parliamentary question was raised by MEP Carmen Fraga Estévez. She stressed that the high number of notifications not only ‘highlights serious failings in Thai industry checks, but also on the part of the competent supervisory body in Thailand’. She asked, ‘How can the Commission verify whether the competent Thai authority is able to perform the necessary checks on exports when from February to November 2012 it has repeatedly authorised below standard tinned tuna, which could compromise food safety, for export to the EU?’
An answer was given at the end of December 2012 by Health Commissioner Tonio Borg, who emphasised that ‘The Thai authorities have been kept informed of the seriousness of the problem since the very first detection of the non-conformities.’ These authorities responded on various occasions, regularly informing the Commission of the actions taken following the notifications. Despite these corrections, the problem reoccurred and the Thai authorities decided to remove the approval of the establishment for export to the EU. The Thai competent authorities have provided an action plan to correct the shortcomings identified. The actions initiated by the Thai authorities have been satisfactorily considered by the auditors. Their enforcement will subsequently be verified in a follow-up audit at a date to be scheduled.
Thailand is the world’s leading producer of canned tuna and, although it does not benefit from the same level of preferences as other ACP countries, it has become one of the main suppliers to the EU market due to its low production costs. This case raises issues about the production conditions of canned tuna – lowering production costs ‘at all costs’, by limiting the time and temperature of sterilisation (thus saving on energy). In the end it may prove more costly in terms of image for the European consumer – something that European competitors such as ANFACO pay close attention to. This suggests that if ACP countries cannot compete on cost with Thai and Latin American products, they should ensure their production methods meet the highest standards in terms of quality and sustainability.