Vietnam's produce exporters are bemoaning a domestic ban on the exports of certain vegetables to Europe for fear that further safety violations will prompt the EU to cease accepting Vietnamese produce altogether.
The Plant Protection Department at the ministry of agriculture decided to suspend exports of basil, bitter melon, red chilies, celery and coriander to Europe until next February.
On Monday, the Ministry of Industry and Trade published a statement from the European Commission’s consumer protection agency DG SANCO warning that the bloc would ban certain Vietnamese vegetable imports if two more imports were found to contain prohibited bacteria this year.
Three shipments of basil and bitter melon have been flagged for harmful bacteria since February 1.
A source from the Plant Protection Department told a Tuoi Tre reporter the internal suspension is designed to protect Vietnam's vegetable exporters.
The official said his department will work with produce exporters to ensure they improve techniques used to screen for bacteria and other natural contaminants before trade resumes.
Exports of another 50 low-risk fruits and vegetables will proceed uninterrupted.
Dang Van Hoang, head of the Plant Quarantine Department for Zone No.2 (e.g. Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces from Ninh Thuan to Dong Thap) said the measure is necessary to prevent Vietnam from being entered on an EU blacklist.
Still, he worries that Vietnam's close competitors, like Thailand, will step in to fill the gap.
“This is the consequence of a few businesses not doing what they're supposed to do," he said. "The entire Vietnam produce sector is now suffering the consequences.”
Several exporters to the EU argue the blanket nature of the ban is unfair and unwise, Tuoi Tre reported.
One exporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “The authorities should have blocked exports from violators only.”
“Our products have never been flagged for any violations. But any time there’s a warning, we have to hold our exports. Our business has been affected even though we did nothing wrong,” the source said.
The director of an exporter in Ho Chi Minh City said his company is scrambling to find takers for the EU shipments in America and Asia.
The businessman said his company has spent thousands of dollars on rent and technology to meet EU export requirements.
“We fly shipments to Europe every month and none of them have ever violated anything. Now we've been caught up in others’ errors; all our business plans are shattered.”
In September, Vietnam exported between 30 and 50 tons of vegetables and fruits a week to the EU.
Not pure a record
Vietnam halted exports of the same five vegetables (e.g. the high-risk group) in May 2012 after the EU flagged three contaminated shipments.
Dang Hoang Hai, head of the European Market at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, told Tuoi Tre he was asked to inspect the rejected shipments.
“When we opened the boxes, insects flew out,” he said.
The Thinh Cat Company in Ho Chi Minh City exported Vietnam's first shipment of basil to Europe last June after passing all quality requirements.
Trade has gone smoothly until now.
Hai said bacterial contamination in Vietnamese produce exports is usually the result of either processing mistakes or poor technology.
He said many exporters guarantee safe levels of pesticides and preservatives, but they don't pay much attention to disinfecting their products from insects or bacteria.
The long trip to Europe allows plenty of time for worm and insect larvae to hatch, he said.
He also added that businesses should do a better job of screening for natural contaminants, which can be achieved with the use of ultraviolet rays or iodine.
Hai told Tuoi Tre the government will negotiate with EU representatives to raise the annual limit on rejected shipments above five.
Hoang said given the fact that 15,000 shipments are exported to the EU every year, the restriction of five (0.03 percent) is too harsh.
“We will ask the EU to raise the limit to a more reasonable level,” he said.