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Pest test sees through sham

- Processing unit fails to save green exports

A hurried attempt to revive a defunct vegetable processing-cum-packaging facility and save Bengal the blushes has failed to prevent tonnes of greens meant for export from being rejected again, this time during screening in Calcutta.

The state government-run unit at Barasat has had little more than a cosmetic makeover since European Union-commissioned tests confirmed the presence of harmful microbes and pests in produce from Bengal, prompting the Indian authorities to ban direct export of these items from April 1.

The equipment required to remove pests and microbes from vegetables still don’t work, as pre-export tests conducted by a central agency in Calcutta prove.

“Harmful pests have been detected in several consignments of raw vegetables processed at the Barasat packaging unit and so we had to reject those. Earlier, there had been many rejections by the European authorities. If we allow these vegetables to be exported, there can be a long-term ban,” V.K. Sharma, deputy director of the regional plant quarantine station in Calcutta, said.

Raw vegetables need to be processed in a unit with hot and cold wash arrangements and infrared treatment to kill microbes and pests.

Bengal exports around 2,500 tonnes of vegetables annually, 30 per cent of which go to the UK and other countries in the European Union. Metro had highlighted last week how several consignments sent over the past year didn’t make it past the UK laboratories that issue phytosanitary certification for imported items.

Delhi had alerted Bengal to the possibility of a long-term ban last December but the state didn’t start renovating the Barasat facility until days before the April 1 deadline.

“The repairs have been basic…some ACs and a few machines and some cleaning,” an official said.

Metro visited the Barasat facility on Monday to find gas cylinders and utensils dumped in the dehumidifier room. The hot and cold wash plant and the sorting and grading machinery weren’t working either.

Leafy vegetables need a hot and cold wash with neem oil to rid them of pests. “After washing, we need to remove the excess moisture with a dehumidifier, otherwise the vegetables will rot,” said exporter Pankaj Sarkar, whose consignment of 300kg of leafy vegetables bound for the UK was rejected at the plant quarantine station on April 1.

On Monday, workers were sorting and grading betel leaf meant for export to the UK by spreading them out on a plastic sheet on the floor of the processing and packaging unit. “We used to do this at our local bazaar. Now we are doing it here, that’s the only difference,” a worker said.

Horticulture officials said they had to rush through the renovation to meet the deadline, but couldn’t invite bids for the major part of the planned work because of the general elections.

Longer the wait, more the losses incurred by exporters. “We have requested the authorities to renovate the facility as early as possible,” said Mrinal Sinha, secretary of the West Bengal Fruits and Vegetables Exporters’ Association.

SLOPPY process