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Hot pepper powder worth ten million USD has been returned to Ethiopia from European markets when it was found to have unsafe levels of Aflatoxins and Ochratoxins during testing at entrance laboratories in European countries.
Ethiopian hot pepper was banned in the UK last fiscal year until it could successfully pass quality control tests and the Ethiopian Embassy in London began working jointly with hot pepper importers to improve the product. Germany also blocked a large amount of hot pepper from entering their borders.
Stakeholders told Capital that since 2016 a huge amount of exported hot pepper was returned from Europe to Ethiopia. Europe is a major destination for Ethiopian spice and hot pepper is the spice that Ethiopia exports the most.
Since the problem came to the attention of exporters the Ethiopian Spice, Aromatic and Herbs Growers and Processors Association (ESAHGPA) has been scrambling to tackle the problem in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) and its diplomatic missions in Europe.
The pepper problem was one of two topics discussed during a meeting two weeks ago at MoFA with members of the association and relevant bodies. The sector has generated about USD 9 million per year but has been severely affected, according to Addisu Alemayehu, researcher on the spice sector and secretary general of ESAHGPA.
According to Addisu, in the last five years an increasing amount of Ethiopian pepper have had unsafe amounts of Aflatoxins and Ochratoxin A. The standard set by the region is 5 parts per billion for Alfatoxins and 15 parts per billion for Ochratoxin A. Some of the Ethiopian hot pepper had as much as 78 parts per billion of both toxins.
“Currently we are using the private laboratory firm called Bless Agri Foods Laboratory Services PLC and the state owned Ethiopian Conformity Assessment Enterprise to measure the level of Aflatoxins and Ochratoxin A before export,” Addisu said.
“In a 2014 EU statement Ethiopia was not included on a list of banned products but the incidents soon raised red flags,” an expert said.
On December 21, 2016 the EU issued a statement imposing special conditions governing the import of spices from Ethiopia. The regulation stated that since 2015, there have been several notifications in the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) reporting high levels of Aflatoxins and Ochratoxin A in (mixtures of) spices from Ethiopia. “In order to protect human and animal health in the Union, it is necessary to provide for additional guarantees in relation to spices from Ethiopia,” it explained.
Million Bogale, General Manager of Balegreen Spice and Grain Development PLC and board Chairman of ESAHGPA told Capital that the contamination does not appear to be a result of the production process, rather the contamination is occurring when the spice is dried and delivered to market. Farmers and traders are putting water on the pepper to increase the weight. This causes Aflatoxins and Ochratoxin A to form, he said.
His association is working to change the way pepper is handled from harvest to the market. Stakeholders are traveling to rural areas to negotiate with small farmers in an attempt to convince them to harvest the product by themselves. He said that the current solution is contract with the farmers to collect the product as it is on the land. “Awareness creation is crucial to alleviate this problem toxins are very dangerous to people’s health,” Addisu said. “It is not only for the international consumer but for the health of our citizens,” he added.
Pepper exporters have been dramatically affected.
Esla Habte, General Manager of Fasika Spice PLC told Capital that the Aflatoxins and Ochratoxin are a daunting challenge.
Her company, formed 25 years ago, is one of the biggest spice exporters to Europe. The company has a capacity of exporting USD 300,000 worth of hot pepper per annum.
Since last fiscal year they have lost a lot of money because of this issue.
“This budget year we identified the problem and agreed with farmers to buy the product at their farms to alleviate the toxins,” Elsa said.
To get the product before harvest she paid three times more than the market price, according to Elsa.
“Recently, we were able to export two containers of hot pepper to Europe, mostly the UK and the quality was up to European standards,” she said.
She said that even though the product is mainly used by Ethiopian descendents it has become popular in other communities and is sold in some supermarkets like Indian shops.
Million said that the association will table a new procedure for the hot pepper process to the government. This could include improving production and creating market linkages.
Ethiopia harvests the 8th most red pepper in the world. Although it is still the country’s leading vegetable product and a major spice in Ethiopian cuisine which gives the nation’s food a unique flavor, production has gone down recently as farmers have preferred to sell peppers when they are green.