Avoiding future bans on Egyptian onion exports: Quality control as a remedy?

Mona El-Fiqi , Saturday 26 Jan 2019

Saudi Arabia has banned Egyptian onion imports, citing high levels of pesticides; some industry operators say more attention should be paid to picking and packing procedures with a view to promoting quality control

Egyptian market
File Photo: Egyptians shop for onions at a vegetable market in Cairo, Egypt, October 11, 2017 (Reuters)

Following the examination of samples from Egypt, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture has imposed a temporary ban on Egyptian imports of onions because of unacceptable levels of pesticide residues.

The ban was imposed to protect public health after it was shown that the onions contained pesticide residues at a rate exceeding the international limit, according to a statement issued by Sanad Al-Harbi, director of the Saudi Livestock Risk Assessment Department.

The note was circulated among all Saudi quarantine departments.

Following the issuance of the ban, the movement of onion trucks from Safaga to Al-Dabaha in Saudi Arabia was halted on 18 January, but as the government had not received an official notice from Saudi Arabia about the decision, truck drivers, exporters and officials were confused.

Ahmed Al-Attar, head of the Central Department of Agricultural Quarantine at the Ministry of Agriculture, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that Egypt would demand an explanation from Saudi Arabia over the decision. 

According to Al-Attar, the Egyptian ministry did not receive an official notice about contaminated onion shipments in spite of the fact that according to an agreement signed last year Saudi Arabia undertook to formally notify Egypt of any rejection of shipments.

Mohamed Abdel-Maguid, head of the Pesticides Committee at the Agriculture Ministry, said the decision was not clear since onions by their nature can harbour few pesticides.

Osama Al-Qodsi, owner of the Mansoura-based Al-Qodsi Company for Vegetable and Fruit Exports, said “it is impossible that Egyptian onions were contaminated with pesticide residues at this time of year [the end of the onion cultivation season].” 

He said that his company had exported onions to Jordan, Greece and the US this season, and the shipments were accepted as they had met all the standard quality requirements.

He added that shipments from other exporters had been rejected by Saudi Arabia during the last few weeks, causing major losses.  

 “It is unfair to ban all imports from Egypt if one shipment did not meet specifications. It would be better to impose a penalty, or halt the work of the company which owns the shipment, not to punish all exporters,” Al-Qodsi said.

Ashour Al-Assil, head of the Saury Company for Vegetable and Fruit Exports, agreed. “Weak penalties encourage some exporters to violate regulations.

Revoking the licence of an exporting company is not a real punishment as it will start working again after getting a new one,” he said. 

“The decision will not have a negative impact on our business because it is the end of the onion season, and the new harvest will come in March and April.

I expect that the ban will be lifted by that time because the Saudi market will need Egyptian onions which enjoy a high reputation in the global market,” Al-Assil said.

However, he said the ban could sully the reputation of Egyptian exports in the international market, particularly as it is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has banned an Egyptian agricultural product.

Saudi Arabia earlier banned imports of Egyptian strawberries, peppers and frozen guavas for the same reason.

In April 2018, the Saudi Food and Drug Authority lifted the ban on imports of these after proof that the limits of pesticide residues on them were in accordance with global standards and European requirements.

To avoid such bans in future, Al-Assil said the Ministry of Agriculture should control the quality as well quantities of pesticides used by farmers in order to increase vegetable and fruit exports.

More attention should also be given to picking and packing procedures, he said, with a view to promoting quality control.

He called for coordination between the exporters of the same commodity so as not to send too many shipments at the same time to a certain destination leading to over-supply and thus a drop in the price of exports. 

Local consumers might benefit from the ban, according to Al-Assil, as exporters will now have to sell their onions locally, which means more supplies and lower prices.

Onions are Egypt’s third-largest exported crop following oranges and potatoes. They represent 20 per cent of Egypt’s total agricultural exports and are exported mainly to the European Union, the US, Russia and the Arab countries.

Egyptian onions are in high demand since they are harvested in March and April, earlier than in other markets.

The total land cultivated with onions represents eight per cent of Egypt’s total planted areas. Total onion production represents seven per cent of global production and 70 per cent of African production.

Egypt’s agricultural exports stood at four million tons in 2017/2018, compared to 3.8 million tons the previous year.

The total value of its agricultural exports amounted to $1.2 billion in 2017/2018.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Banning onion exports

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