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Bengal greens fail Brit test

Bitter gourd from Bengal has made the British bitter. Ladies finger, long beans, raw mango, lemon, brinjal and leafy vegetables grown in the state have failed the purity and pest test too.

European Union-commissioned tests confirming the presence of harmful microbes and pests in produce from Bengal has prompted the Indian authorities to ban direct export of these items from April 1.

The state exports around 2,500 tonnes of vegetables annually, 30 per cent of which go to the UK and other countries in the European Union. Over the past year, many of these consignments haven’t made it past the laboratories that issue the mandatory phytosanitary certification for imported items.

“We are not allowing consignments of vegetables from Bengal to be exported to Europe as the EU authorities have fixed new safety norms for processing that Bengal is yet to upgrade to,” V.K. Sharma, deputy director of the regional plant quarantine station in Calcutta, told Metro on Wednesday.

Anyone who has been to the lone processing unit at Barasat, North 24-Parganas, won’t be surprised. The unit, opened in 2007, has long been defunct and the department of food processing industries and horticulture has allegedly done little to revive it.

Raw vegetables need to be processed in a packaging unit with heat and cold wash facilities and infrared treatment that kill microbes and pests.

Calcutta-based officials of the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda), a central government agency, said the lone processing unit wasn’t upgraded despite warnings since last December about the EU’s strict screening norms.

The Food and Environment Research Agency, which has a unit at London’s Heathrow airport for such tests, confirmed that microbes and pests were routinely found in produce exported from India.

“The main regulated items (commodities that require phytosanitary certification) affected were the bitter gourd or karela, on which we have intercepted both the fruit fly and Thrips palmi. Other regulated commodities being intercepted with quarantine pests are mangoes and aubergines (brinjal),” a spokesperson for the Food and Environment Research Agency said in an email to Metro.

According to microbiologists, the fruit fly and Thrips palmi act as vectors in transmission of food and water-borne gastroenteric diseases.

The Food and Environment Research Agency said interception of produce of Indian origin because of the presence of EU quarantine-listed pests and diseases had increased since 2010.

“At Heathrow, we have also intercepted a significant amount of quarantine-listed pests on non-regulated items (commodities that don’t require phytosanitary certification on import) in the last 12 months. The main interceptions are on snake gourds, Cochorus sp. leaves, Patra/Taro leaves and Amaranthus sp. leaves,” the agency’s spokesperson wrote.

Officials in Calcutta blamed the lack of a decontamination process before packaging for the interceptions.

Exporters say they are forced to pack vegetables procured from farmers in open spaces or at makeshift units where there are no facilities for washing and decontamination. From there, these packets go straight to the airport.

“We have been requesting the state government and central agencies to provide us a proper facility in Barasat. By the time the horticulture department officials woke up, it was too late,” alleged Mrinal Sinha, an exporter and secretary of the West Bengal Fruits and Vegetables Exporters’ Association.

In the past year, 15 tonnes of vegetables sent by Sinha to Europe have been rejected. “I have incurred losses totalling Rs 25 lakh,” he said.

Sinha and other exporters in Calcutta have not been able to send any consignment of vegetables to Europe for the past two days because of the ban on direct export.

Beginning April 1, exporters are required to route all fruit and vegetable shipments to Europe through packaging houses approved by Apeda. Inspection of consignments for export will be under the supervision of trained plant quarantine personnel.

The National Plant Protection Organisation won’t issue a certificate for export consignments that are not routed through such packaging houses.

The Food and Environment Research Agency in the UK had issued a notice to the directorate of plant protection quarantine and storage last December, asking it to strictly follow laboratory-testing norms for microbes and pests.

“After receiving the advisory, we duly alerted the Bengal government and requested it to restore the infrastructure in Barasat. But it was only a few days back that the authorities started to restore the facility, so work could not be completed before the deadline,” an Apeda official said.

But will one such unit suffice? “Several such units are required across the state to ensure that the export chain is maintained,” he said.

A senior official of the food processing and horticulture department said the government was “taking all possible steps” to bring vegetable exports back on track. “The packaging house was handed over to Apeda a few days back,” he said.

Like predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has on several occasions stressed the need to improve infrastructure for fruit and vegetable exports. The promise to set up agriculture hubs with modern facilities hasn’t been fulfilled yet.

Rabiul Mondal, a farmer from Maslandapur in North 24-Parganas, supplies five tonnes of vegetables to three exporters every day and employs 55 workers to pack the consignments at a makeshift facility in a marketplace. He fears his business will die. “If exports are stopped, all these people will lose their livelihood,” Mondal said, pointing to his workers.