DESPITE "productive" trade talks between the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the European Union (EU), stringent phytosanitary requirements for exported South African citrus remain in place.

Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson said at a media briefing on Friday that an EU requirement for a threshold of five interceptions of citrus affected by black spot disease remained in force.

Citrus black spot is a disease that affects the rind of fruit, though it has no other effect on the fruit and carries no risk to consumers. The disease is mainly caused by climatic conditions and in South Africa it does not affect citrus fruit in the Western Cape.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson said the government was working with the industry to "expand" citrus markets, particularly to countries in Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) such as China and India.

"Because we cannot put all our eggs in one basket. We are looking at other markets but it makes no sense to replace one market with another," she said. "And without the EU market we will destabilise the citrus industry in South Africa."

South Africa exports more than 100-million cartons of citrus a year, with up to 45%, valued at R3bn, going to the EU. It is the world’s second-biggest citrus exporter after Spain.

To remedy the black spot risk, South Africa was hoping an alliance with the US industry, based mainly in Florida, could be useful. This region, like a few others, has been affected by citrus black spot and similarly treated by the EU.

"The EU has left the door open to us," Ms Joemat-Pettersson said. "It is now up to us to ensure we can meet their requirements."

The minister said that the first EU interception due to black spot occurred on the Sunday following the trade meeting, "which was embarrassing for us, having just made assurances".

Pieter Nortje, of the Citrus Growers Association of Southern Africa, said the interception occurred "about halfway through the season". Despite this he insisted that "we will exceed five interceptions this season", though he conceded that "we might be lucky".

Mr Nortje said the industry has spent R450m a year on chemicals to fight the disease, which last year resulted in 39 interceptions.

Citrus Growers Association CEO Justin Chadwick said citrus exports have grown at 7% a year for the past 10 years.

Ms Joemat-Pettersson said the industry is one of the biggest employers of unskilled labour in South Africa. It provides 60,000 permanent jobs, an additional 80,000-100,000 seasonal jobs, and has a presence in 74 rural towns.

AgriSA senior economist Dawie Maree said the interaction between the citrus industry and government was a good example of how collaboration could "solve an issue". But he said he agreed with industry insiders who said the citrus black spot problem represented "protection of its own industries" by the EU rather than phytosanitary concerns.

"There is absolutely no evidence that their orchards are infected by importing fruit affected by black spot," he said.

© BDlive 2013