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EU MRLs and retailer standards affect more than ACP exporters

28 June 2014

A growing number of press reports are highlighting mounting concerns among horticultural exporters over the stricter application of official EU maximum residue levels (MRLs) and other food safety requirements.

Thai exporters report that increased sampling requirements (of 10 to 20% of shipments) for certain low-volume exotic vegetable exports (e.g. weekly shipments of 50-kg consignments) incur such high laboratory costs per unit of volume as to make exports commercially non-viable. This, it is argued, impacts particularly heavily on small-scale exporters. The situation is further complicated by the country-level application of the EU’s “five strikes” rule, under which after five interceptions of infected products by sanitary and phytosanitary inspection (SPS) services, a country-specific import ban may be introduced. This is discouraging exporters from serving the EU market for fear that consignments in transit could be denied entry.

Similarly, US deciduous fruit exporters have reported finding it increasingly difficult to maintain reliable export programmes to EU markets, given the increasingly rigorous application of EU pesticide residue controls. The reduction of tolerance levels for diphenylamine (DPA) to 0.1 part per million is a particular source of concern. US fruit industry representatives maintain that “MRLs are so low that coming in contact with even trace amounts in fruit bins or packing facilities would exceed the limit.” US exporters argue that EU requirements are “not really based on sound science”, since the EU adopts a “guilty until proven innocent” approach. Restrictions on the use of DPA, according to Mike Willett, vice president on scientific affairs at the US Northwest Horticultural Council, are “due to lack of evidence over its safety, rather than evidence of its risks”. In this context, US exporters are seeking “more in-depth assessment of the data package” on the use of DPA as a means of addressing specific MRL issues.

In addition, US exporters are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with individual retailer requirements. Mr Willett commented that “shippers that comply with European Commission regulations may find they cannot comply with the standards established by supermarkets.” In this context, he said that US exporters are deciding that “trying to meet those requirements in the market is more risky than the returns would justify,” and that this is leading US exporters to seek other buyers. In 2014, the first shipment of significant volumes of US pears to China took place, “making up for some of the lost markets in Europe”. Other growth markets are also being targeted by US exporters, including Russia and India.

However, there can be an upside for some ACP exporters. Press reports in May 2014 suggested the introduction of EU restrictions on imports of Indian mangos (due to fruit fly concerns) could serve to avert a planned switch away from West African mango exporters. Following the introduction of the EU restrictions, it was reported that some UK importers were intensifying cooperation with mango suppliers in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal and the Dominican Republic to establish year-round supply relationships. 

Editorial comment

The position of US deciduous fruit exporters regarding EU policy on DPA is indicative of the fundamental difference between the EU and the US in the approaches to food safety and SPS measures adopted by the EU and US authorities. The EU’s approach is based on the precautionary principle, i.e. that the burden of proof with regard to food safety lies with those placing products on the market. This is in distinct contrast to the US approach, which allows products on the market unless proven unsafe. It is unclear how this fundamental difference in approach to food safety issues will be addressed in the EU–US TTIP negotiations.

The fact that the SPS-related difficulties faced on the EU market are encouraging US exporters to shift away from serving EU markets towards targeting markets in faster-growing advanced developing country economies provides a salutary warning that market diversification in response to increasingly strict EU SPS/food safety controls could prove extremely challenging for ACP exporters, as competition on these alternative markets intensifies.

As the Thai example illustrates, food safety/SPS controls can fall particularly heavily on small-scale exporters. This is an issue of particular concern to ACP countries, the majority of which have populations of under 2.5 million people.


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