Polish apple growers have reacted with anger to the suggestion by Russia that their exports could be temporarily banned from the Russian market due to pest control concerns, claiming the findings have been politically motivated.
Russia’s Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance (Rosselkhoznadzor) expressed “serious concern” recently after reportedly finding 21 cases of Polish plant products infested with pests of significance in 2012 and in the first nine months of this year.
The agency said there had been 916 violations of phytosanitary registration requirements, including false shipping and country of origin information and unauthorized changes to certificates.
Rosselkhoznadzor also claimed that in the first nine months of 2013, some 3,982 metric tons (MT) of imported Polish products, including apples and cabbages, were found to have exceeded permitted Maximum Residue Levels (MRLs) for pesticides during random inspections.
However, Polish exporters have hit back at the Russian authorities’ claims, arguing that Russia has used the threat of a ban to place political pressure on Poland over its support for Ukraine’s negotiations with the European Union.
Artur Stasiak, managing director of Silvi Cola which exports around 8,000 metric tons (MT) of Polish apples to Russia each year, said he was in little doubt as to why Russia has chosen now to raise its concerns.
“If you trace the history of placing an embargo on the import of goods, Russia introduces them only if there is a threat to life or health, such as an epidemic, disease or bacteria,” he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
“In other cases, there are political reasons. So it is now.
“Poland supports Ukraine’s aspirations to sign an association agreement with the European Union. Russia is the largest recipient of Polish apples and is trying to prevent the signing of the agreement, by pressing on a sensitive point, which is the export of apples to this country.”
Stasiak argued that the threat of the ban would likely remain in place until after the Eastern Partnership Summit on on Nov. 29 in Vilnius, Lithuania, after which he believed the situation would return to normal.
Dominik Wozniak, from Polish apple cooperative Rajpol, said his company currently sold 15% – or around 5,000 metric tons (MT)– of its annual apple production to Russia, with the country its main client for the Idared, Golden Delicious and increasingly Gala varieties.
Although he conceded a ban may halt exports for a few days, Wozniak said exports to Russia would probably resume quickly through alternative routes, such as Latvia or Belarus.
However, Wozniak said that this relatively more expensive option may encourage growers to offer their products to other markets, with the resulting additional volumes likely to push prices down.
As Edyta Kwiatkowska-Sioch from major Polish shipper Polfrost explained, Russia is one of the major markets for Polish exports, with Poland sending an estimated 800,000 metric tons (MT) of fruits and vegetables to its near neighbor in 2012.
In fact, she said many apple producers from central and eastern Poland effectively exported all their volumes to Russia.
Russia also accounts for some 30% of Polfrost’s entire business, with the company exporting meat, dairy products and construction materials as well as fruits and vegetables to Russia through its Moscow-based subsidiary.
However, although a recent ban on Polish meat to Russia cut few percent from Polfrost’s turnover and Kwiatkowska-Sioch said a ban for Polish apples would produce a similar impact, she did not believe the company’s overall business in Russia would be significantly affected.
She also argued that political rather than health considerations were the source of the current threatened ban.
“The decision to ban the import of Polish apples would be purely political,” Kwiatkowska-Sioch claimed.
“Batches contested by Rosselkhoznadzor are a small part of the total exports, if we take into account the total volume of apples and other fruits exported to Russia.
“Certainly, all violations of Russian phytosanitary regulations need to be be investigated and Polish inspection offices are willing to cooperate in eliminating such cases.”
However, she said it took “two to tango”.
“Standards for pesticides levels in Russia are more restrictive than in the European Union and Polish exporters need to comply with them, but episodic cases of violations of the standards do not constitute grounds for a total ban on imports of the product”.
With Ukraine having now suspended negotiations on the signing of an agreement of association with the European Union at the Vilnius summit, apparently in favor of improving relations with Russia, it remains to be seen whether the threat of the ban on Polish apples will remain in place.
The agreement of association, which was supported by Poland, would have marked the first step towards possible EU membership for Ukraine and would have also included a major free trade deal, making the Kremlin’s preferred Customs Union between Russia and Ukraine impossible.
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