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New EU maximum residue levels hit Kenyan vegetable exports

28 April 2013

According to regional press articles, “more than a fifth of Kenya’s vegetable exports to the European market were rejected in January after they were found to contain traces of a banned chemical”, dimethoate, “said to cause cancer”. Stephen Mbithi, CEO of the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya (FPEAK), pointed out that the increased interceptions followed a 90% reduction in the permitted level of residues: the EU changed its regulations in 2012, stipulating that dimethoate residues “should not exceed 0.02 parts per million”. Dr Mbithi added that “several companies and farmers were de-listed” as a result of the interceptions.

Following the EU changes, the Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture moved in 2012 to ban the use of pesticides containing dimethoate, but the ban was lifted by the Kenyan High Court following appeals from the distributor of the affected chemicals, which were largely sold to the smallholder farming sector. The Ministry of Agriculture subsequently reiterated its advice to smallholder farmers not to use the chemicals, despite the absence of readily available alternative plant protection products.

Larger horticultural producers have been developing biological pest management systems and hence are less dependent on chemical treatments. The stricter maximum residue level (MRL) has therefore fallen particularly heavily on smallholder farmers.

In February 2013, FPEAK reported that intensified EU controls of Kenyan exports of beans and mangetout were leading to delivery delays (of up to 72 hours), which were having a significant impact on the shelf life of products delivered to retailers. By mid February 2013, only 1.6% of samples tested contained higher than permitted residue levels. According to FPEAK, the scale of the problem did not warrant the level of delays occurring as a result of intensified inspections. As a consequence, these EU controls are now seen as becoming a barrier to trade, if “the inspection period takes so long that it interferes, disrupts or destroys business”.

According to information on the website for COLEACP, the Europe-Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Liaison Committee, the Kenyan green bean sector supports an estimated 50,000 smallholder producers. FPEAK is concerned that the smallholder producers are being squeezed out of the supply chain, as traders become reluctant to purchase products for export unless their production processes are fully supervised by a larger-scale exporter. COLEACP reports that it will be providing assistance through the PIP and EDES programmes to develop both short- and long-term solutions, including close consultations with SANCO, the EC’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers. The COLEACP initiatives recognise the need to “improve and coordinate training on pesticide use throughout the sector as well as, crucially, to strengthen the national programme of residue monitoring and surveillance”. COLEACP is making additional assistance available to these initiatives.

COLEACP argues on its website that “current market conditions must not change the industry structure and waste the benefits of years of effort and investment,” and is urging support to ensure that Kenya provides “a new agricultural development model combining innovation, new technologies and sustainable agricultural practices”.

Dr Mbithi of FPEAK added that the Kenyan bean industry “would continue to look to new markets, particularly Eastern Europe, Africa and the US”. However, he stressed that this was not to avoid compliance with the EU, and was not “a market deflection”, but a “market expansion” exercise.

Editorial comment

As well as the impact of changes in measurable maximum residue levels, current developments in Kenya’s horticultural exports highlight the need for a range of improvements that need to be brought about in close consultation with all stakeholders. These include the industry body (FPEAK), exporters, government bodies, and smallholder producers through their own organisations.

The improvements required include a review of current legislation on plant protection products in order to establish a more rigorous legal framework that fully integrates food safety concerns and export requirements. They should include mechanisms for ensuring farmers that can secure compensation from distributors of plant protection products that do not meet legal requirements.

In order to prevent the use of banned chemicals in the first place, there would also appear to be a need to:

  • strengthen extension services, with a focus on a stricter code of practice for use of agrochemicals;
  • improve training of farmers in good agricultural practices;
  • increase field monitoring and inspection services;
  • strengthen the staffing and laboratory capacity of the Kenya Plant Health Inspection Service (KEPHIS) in order to increase the frequency of testing.

It is also to establish sound traceability systems that are affordable and can easily be used by smallholder farmers involved in export products, so that any products in violation of food safety requirements can be traced back to the individual producers concerned.

The implementation of such measures would go a long way to ensuring that Kenyan smallholder farmers produce safe horticultural products in line with export market requirements.

In the absence of such corrective measures, Kenya risks losing its traditionally strong position in the established and lucrative EU market.


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