Kiribati Gains Authorisation to Access the EU Market. What Does it Mean and How Does It Work?

Date: June 26, 2017

Source & Author: Francisco Blaha

Since a couple of weeks ago, Kiribati became the 4th country in the Pacific to be included in the list of third countries and territories from which imports of certain fishery products for human consumption are permitted. This does not mean that from now on fish caught by any Kiribati-flagged vessels can “instantly” access directly or indirectly the EU. It does not work just like that!

Here is a post on how that work and the inside story on how Kiribati got to be authorised from the sanitary side, yet the country still with a yellow card from the IUU side.

The EU’s Regulation (EC) 854/2004 provides that products of animal origin can only be imported into the EU from a third country (meaning non-EU countries) that appears on a list drawn up in accordance with that Regulation.  When drawing up such lists, account is taken of EC controls in 3rd countries and guarantees provided by the CA of 3rd countries in regard to compliance or equivalence with the relevant EU (health) regulations.

If a country is listed for fishery products in the application of the above Regulation it would be drawn up in Annex II of Commission Decision 2006/766/EC. And then lists of EU approved establishments or vessels can only be drawn up for those countries appearing on the authorised country list.

The EU obliges compliance to its own requirements, and thus requires the 3rd country to prove that it operates a control structure applicable to its seafood exports that are equivalent to those existing in an EU member country. Hence meeting the applicable EU standards to allow seafood export to the EU, through the establishment and operation of a Competent Authority (CA) for seafood sanitary controls is a challenging, expensive and difficult undertaking for any country.

Many Small Island Developing States in the Pacific (SIDS), remain in the category of Least Developed Countries recognised by the UN latest listing (LDC-IV)[1] in 2011. The 3 elements that define this status (poverty, human resource weakness and economic vulnerability) are at the same time key elements in the establishment and operation of a CA.

The potential for these LDCs to set up a system of controls equivalent to those of an EC member countries seems incongruent with the international measures and WTO agreements designed to reduce the competitive disadvantages LDCs suffer from in the global economy; support the development of their physical infrastructure and human resources, and enhance their institutional capacities.

Until now, only three of Pacific Islands country members have been able to meet this requirement – PNG, Solomons and Fiji – all relatively large countries with substantial tuna processing industries. Even these countries face considerable challenges. Both Fiji and PNG have been forced to suspend exports to the EU for a time in the last few years, while Solomon Islands continues to rely on donor funding to maintain its CA. Furthermore, these 3 countries “inherited” their authorised status out of the old model where you could have EU approved factories, in countries that weren’t “authorised”. When this approach phased out in the 90’s we managed to graduate into the authorised country status.

I say “we” for a reason… while most of my present work is on the IUU area, my initial work in the Pacific was around helping countries maintain the EU status (I even wrote manuals about it!).

This line of work has to do with seafood safety, more than fisheries, but understanding boats and fisheries did give me a different approach to the one of the food safety specialist or veterinarians that normally do this job,  and from that angle I have helped over the last 18 years each of those countries (plus another 20 outside the region) with substantial technical support to check systems and prepare for inspections by the EU authorities.

The other complicated issue is that in many SIDS, there are a growing number of foreign-owned but locally flagged vessels (as to get cheaper access) that operate in their own economic zones and regional waters. These vessels unload locally or in other 3rd countries for processing or shipment to processing facilities with the potential to export to EU markets, and they are not particularly keen to have HACCP plans on board, records, train crew, and have inspectors coming to check their records.

But as “eligibility” to the EU market is limited to fish caught by vessels approved by the CA of the flag state, if these are authorised by DG SANTE. For SIDS in the Pacific, the lack of EU sanitary authorization is a price disincentive for buyers of their fish caught in their waters, but not for same fish caught by vessels from EU authorised DWFN[2]catching next to them, even if the inspectors of those flag states, may have never been on board!

A further challenge for Pacific countries is that in many cases, they do not have processing sites in their territory (nor the physical area and cost effective geographical situation to develop them), or if they do, the operational focus targets more regional markets and not the EU.For these countries, the CA needs to be developed and operated in a “vessel only” oriented manner. This would potentially imply a CA with officers either travelling to the foreign landing ports and/or establishing MoUs with the CAs of the unloading countries.

The key issue here, is that based on the principle of official controls, regional countries with processing and market access capabilities, (such as PNG and SI), are limited in supporting regional fisheries collaboration with their smaller neighbours, or the authorised countries where the main hub canneries operate (such as Philippines, Thailand and Ecuador), as eligibility of vessels in terms of sanitary approval is a requirement under their EU market access conditions.

In principle, the processing countries can only provide “EU Health Certificates” for seafood products which are derived wholly or partly from raw materials products that:

  • Have originated from a third country eligible to export the animal product to the EU;
  • Have been derived from foreign premises eligible to export to the EU, (including vessels); and
  • Be eligible to be exported to the European Community;

So even if the country that flag that vessels is authorised, not all the vessels of factories are approved to provide for the EU. Each individual vessel the need to be approved by the CA of its flag state against the applicable EU standards.

Even if this “eligibility” then is completely “forgotten” in the canning countries, in Thailand for example, this issue already got them into troubles with the EU.

To date, much of the SIDS effort to gain or sustain EU Market access has been supported in one way or another by and SPC, particularly in the areas of training, legislation updates, reciprocal inspections, institutional strengthening, laboratories and control systems development. Inputs from SPC and FFA are in response to official requests received from member country governments and in many cases funded with EU support.

These inputs have been instrumental in getting Kiribati to this stage; we initiated the process back in 2012 with the EU funded/FFA managed DevFish II process. For that, I adapted the National Control Plan (NCP) that I “invented” for Ecuador in 2007 and then used again to get Fiji back into the EU.

The concept of a multi-annual National Control Plan –NCP is under EC Regulation No 882/2004 for its member but I figure out that is it was good for them should be good for everyone else!

I went trough a process of reverse engineering of all the relevant EU regulations and put the requirements in a document in the way the inspectors would like to see them and the country could comply with them. The NCP I came up set up the rules in which the in country “EU system” is to based, to provide the “official assurances” the EU requires. This way the evaluation of this NCP would become the basis on which to judge equivalence, and that way gain/maintain market access.

All methods, procedures and regulatory instruments to be used for conformity assessment, regulatory verification and official guarantees, are presented in the NCP, which in turn is presented to the EU as per their requirements.

The idea is that exporting to the EU is a voluntary act on the part of a few processors; so the recognised CA can impose the NCP only for these factories and vessels.  In this way, the CA can provide “official assurances” only for those establishments and supply vessels that want to be engaged in trade with Europe.

The operators on their side recognise that maintaining approval and certification privileges, as part of the listing of companies allowed to provide raw material or to export directly to the EU, is dependent on regulatory compliance.  If an establishment is not in compliance with the requirements, then their market privileges are suspended or removed as necessary.

I believed that this approach has the advantage of being cost effectively implemented while upholding the level of compliance required for meaningful official assurances.

And it worked! Ecuador maintained its market access till today, so did Fiji and Solomons, and now Kiribati got the OK, only based on the written documentation J

Around 2013 came the time that the EU DG MARE, started dishing “yellow cards” on the IUU side and also we started having issues with the Catch Certification, so I started moving towards that area and FFA contacted my colleague (and brother) Jope Tamai (whom I worked a lot with when is was the Fiji CA boss and got it back to the EU) and also my friend Cushla Hogart, (whom I worked a lot within NZ). Both truly believed in the NCP approach and got this rolling from then on, while I only came into the topic as an external advisor particularly in terms of vessels and the concept for a Regional CA Support Unit (but that is for another post!)

In terms of Kiribati, Jope and Cushla plus the local team of Terere, Tebeio and now Saurara have done the massive groundwork, yet being authorised is only the 1st step. Even if the country is been included in Annex II to Decision 2006/766/EC, not its factory nor any of the 29 vessels flagged there (16 carriers, 12 Purseiners and 1 LL) are yet approved and included in the Kiribati list in DG SANTE’s site.

For that the CA needs to inspect them (following the NCP) and when satisfied about compliance with conditions report the details of the vessel to Brussels so it gets included in the list.

This can be a lengthy process but we are working on it. And I say “we” because NZ AID contracted Saurara Gonelevu (former officer at the Fiji CA) as a resident advisor to the CA and myself as an Expert Advisor to her and the Kiribati CA.

While the factory there is a key player, it will be the CA’s main challenge as management and operations now what it is expected. The key element to tackle will be the Kiribati-flagged Purse Seiners, Carriers and Freezer Longline vessels, since they are mostly managed by Asian-based operators that need to implement HACPP plans, maintain records, submit to sampling and so on, plus the language barrier would be substantial (not many on board speak and write English and not many food safety speak Chinese or Korean)

But the reality is that getting to this point was already a long road, so what is left, in comparison is much less.

Finally be aware that all this has no relationship to Kiribati still on “yellow card” for IUU related matters… that is a whole different EU topic.

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