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Almond exports expose inconsistent use of EU rules

By Sarah Hills , 11-Dec-2008

The voluntary testing of US almonds for a toxic substance has eased the path for exports, a new report claims, but it also highlights the problem of EU regulations being inconsistently adopted across member states.

The US Almond Board’s implementation of the Voluntary Aflatoxin Sampling Plan (VASP) for shipments to the European Union has had a positive effect on US exports of almonds to Italy, according to a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) Global Agriculture Information Network Report.

Italy imports on average about 20,000 tons of US almonds per year, valued at about $100 million, due to strong demand from the local confectionery industry.

Aflatoxins are naturally formed by the fungus Aspergillus flavus on foodstuffs, particularly nuts and dried fruit, and have been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. Aflatoxin B1, the most toxic, is classified as both a human carcinogen and mutagenic.

The VASP provides the US almond industry with a sampling plan for aflatoxin that has an equivalent sensitivity to that currently being used in the EU.

Since its introduction in September 2007, the FAS report said it has sharply reduced the number of rejections due to aflatoxin.

And only about five percent of almond shipments from the US are now tested, whereas without a VASP certificate, almonds are subject to 100 percent mandatory testing of Californian almonds.

However the report said that the issue has also demonstrated how “all-too-often trade problems arise when EU Member States inconsistently adopt and implement EU regulations”.

It said: “In spite of the generally smooth implementation of the VASP system, some problems have cropped up in recent months due to different methodologies implemented by the field import health authorities in Italy.”

Rapid alert

In April 2008, one shipment of US almonds reportedly tested positive for aflatoxin by the Naples port health authorities, which trigged a rapid alert notification.

Then the Italian Ministry of Health independently decided to extend to food products of vegetable origin the provisions originally fixed for animal products by the EU.

This rule states that the next ten consecutive consignments from any rejected shipper must then be inspected by the port of entry authorities.

The report said: “Apparently no other EU Member State applies this rigorous standard.”

It added: “It is not entirely clear that Italian ports have adequate facilities to test a larger number of shipments in an expeditious manner.”

It said that Italian ports do not implement the regulations consistently, so that an affected shipper’s next ten consecutive shipments may not be all tested.

Almonds are the sixth largest US food export. In the domestic California is the main supplying region but nearly two-thirds of production is exported to more than 90 countries abroad.

The California almond crop is valued annually at over $1bn.

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