Agri chief seeks restructuring of food safety agencies as House panel concludes inquiry into smuggling

2022-06-15 11:58:30 By : Ms. janny hou

By Lois Calderon, CNN Philippines

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 31) — Agriculture Secretary William Dar has asked lawmakers to craft a legislation that will fold all food safety regulatory bureaus into just one agency, the Department of Agriculture.

Dar made the plea on Tuesday as a House of Representatives panel concluded months-long inquiry into allegations of rampant smuggling of agricultural goods from China and Korea, including carrots, onions, and strawberries.

“Why not consider, Mister Chairman, restructuring through legislation the Food Safety Regulatory System to only one agency under the Department of Agriculture? Today, there are far too many of these that are handling food safety regulatory systems. Integrating the functions of various agencies can be called the Food Safety Regulatory Administration,” Dar told the House Committee on Agriculture and Food.

“All the specializations required to outcast and constrain economic saboteurs are not the monopoly of the Department of Agriculture. Hence, it exceptionally bewilders and offends me that we should be labelled the Mother of Smuggling,” the Agriculture minister added.

The House panel wrapped up the hearing with more questions than answers, prompting legislators to summon more resource persons when it resumes the inquiry come next Congress.

Tuesday’s deliberations exposed more gaps in the inspection procedures as lawmakers grilled the head of the Bureau of Plant Industry that has that mandate of inspecting and quarantining imported agricultural goods for pests and diseases.

Thrusted into the spotlight were five Bureau of Plant Industry inspectors whom one importer sued for alleged extortion after the latter’s crop imports from China were barred from entry.

The importer, Cambridge Cooperative, tells the House committee that it had shipped two container vans of vegetables in early January, but inspectors seized them after finding that the imports were fresh vegetables that did not meet storage temperature requirements. Wilma Ocampo, the representative from Cambridge, in her testimony before Congress, claimed that bureau inspectors had asked her as much as ₱500,000 to clear the shipments.

“Hinarang hanggang nabulok ‘yung gulay,” Ocampo told the House committee.

[Translation: The container vans were seized until the vegetables rot.]

The Bureau of Plant Industry argued before the House panel that frozen agricultural imports must be shipped at storage vans with below freezing temperatures of negative 18 degrees.

“It was declared as frozen vegetables. But container had fresh vegetables,” Ariel Bayot, Bureau of Plant Industry Assistant Director for Regulatory Services, told lawmakers.

Bayot further explained: “We allow only frozen vegetables with storage temperature of negative 18 degrees Celsius. Upon opening, it is fresh vegetables…Ang isang frozen na shipment, pagdating dito dapat frozen pa din. Malinaw na frozen, at hindi frozen na naging fresh [A frozen shipment should still be frozen upon arrival here. It is clear it should be frozen, and not frozen vegetables that became fresh].”

The Bureau of Plant Industry is an agency under the Department of Agriculture. The latter ordered the bureau to submit a copy of the complaint and summoned the importer to shed light on the issue.

Lawmakers also asked the agency to suspend the Bureau of Plant Industry inspectors named in the complaint while the investigation is ongoing. The House panel also summoned the bureau inspectors for questioning during Tuesday’s hearing but bureau officials said they have internet connection problems and cannot join the House inquiry.

Meanwhile, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) has also asked lawmakers to institutionalize an interagency task group on economic intelligence to go after smugglers.

That task group involves several agencies, including the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine National Police, and the Philippine Competition Commission. It is led by the DTI, but it operates without a budget and permanent staff.

Trade Undersecretary Ruth Castelo told legislators that the task force seized smuggled crop imports worth ₱600 million in 17 raids since last year.

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