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Trouble brews as Egypt court suspends food inspection plan

CAIRO

An Egyptian court on Tuesday suspended a food inspection system launched to reform the trade in agricultural commodities, lawyers on the case said, sowing uncertainty again over imports of wheat in the world’s largest buyer of the grain.

The inspection system was Egypt’s answer to a near year-long row over stringent import requirements, including a ban on the common grain fungus ergot, a policy that halted Egypt’s wheat trade last year when trading houses boycotted its state tenders.

The suspension, which the government has 15 days to appeal, means the quarantine body that applied the ban will again handle the inspection process both in Egypt and abroad, though it does not necessarily imply a return to zero ergot, the lawyers said.

“I have no idea what will happen with ergot, that’s for the agriculture ministry to decide,” said Alaa Zaki, one of the lawyers on the case.

The new system had stripped the agriculture quarantine body of its inspection powers, and moved the process to the trade ministry’s General Organisation for Export and Import Control (GOEIC).

The case was brought by a group of quarantine inspection employees in their capacity as citizens, not by the body itself, as well as several other parties, including some connected to the health ministry, which also takes part in inspections.

They said the new system illegally stripped the quarantine body of its powers and handed it to a trade ministry body ill-equipped to oversee inspections, allowing imports to enter with hazardous contaminants harmful to plant and animal health.

Egypt’s ban on ergot was reversed last year by a decree that came two months before the new inspection system. That decree is also being challenged in court in a related case, though a ruling could take several months, the lawyers said.

Egypt’s state grain buyer GASC has been buying up wheat from international markets in recent weeks despite its ongoing local harvest, a time when it typically stops tendering.

Agencies