Bad fertiliser could harm pineapples

‘Why did they [the agriculture department] continue to sell the product [fertiliser] knowing it was not within specification?’

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At least one shipment of canned pineapples from South Africa has been rejected by Switzerland after elevated levels of the toxic heavy metal cadmium were detected. According to Allen Duncan, chairperson of the Eastern Cape Pineapple Association, farmers used fertiliser contaminated with this trace element. Now the pineapple industry is taking legal action against the product supplier, Protea Chemicals.

“The unethical behaviour by one of the biggest chemical suppliers in South Africa and the damage to the Eastern Cape agricultural industry will be challenged in court,” Duncan said, adding that while the cost to the industry was still being quantified, it was considerable as both processors and farmers have been affected.

Contaminated plants and roots will also have to be removed. “This is the last thing we need because prices are excellent,” Duncan said, adding that this incident was slowing down canning and would negatively affect prices and volumes.

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Duncan and pineapple growers blame the Department of Agriculture for allowing suppliers to import the contaminated fertiliser from China. He said the department should have ensured that heavy metals did not exceed the limit specified on the certificate of analysis supplied by Protea Chemicals. Duncan said that in 2006 the zinc sulphate fertiliser, manufactured in China and used by Eastern Cape pineapple farmers, had much higher cadmium levels than specified by the manufacturers and importers. The specified maximum level for cadmium on the certificate of analysis was less than 16 parts per million (ppm), but the levels measured in samples taken by the pineapple industry were much higher.

He said the fertiliser was supplied by an agent who sourced it from one of the largest suppliers of chemicals in South Africa. The supplier had a permit issued by the Department of Agriculture. “Why did they continue to sell the product knowing it was not within specification?” Duncan asked. “The department also knew about the claims, so why was the product not removed from the market?”

The Feeds and Fertiliser Act 36 of 1947 gives the department power to protect the public interest. “These powers were never used,” said Duncan, pointing out that other commodities could also be under threat. “It will be a disaster for agriculture and South Africa’s good name in all export markets.” 

Consumers ‘assured’ they are not at risk

Duncan assured consumers that they are not at risk. “The local industry has done everything possible to make sure that no product has been sold to the local market with cadmium levels above specification,” he said, adding that fruit is tested in the field before processing and when it arrives at the factory for processing. Canned and juice products are tested according to EU specifications after processing.

He said Australian, US, Canadian and Japanese markets will accept cadmium levels of up to 0,1ppm. This is double the level of 0,05ppm accepted by the South African and EU markets. Furthermore, the department of health has advised the association that levels of 0,25ppm are not a health hazard. This is five times higher than the South African and EU level, and above the level experienced by SA pineapple producers. 

Duncan said farmers who have purchased zinc sulphate from Protea Chemicals should be aware that the products could be out of specification and should contact the supplier to check the products for elevated cadmium levels.
Dr Gert van der Linde, director of the Fertiliser Society of South Africa (FSSA), said it is impossible that all zinc stocks in South Africa are affected and believes it may be an isolated case.

Van der Linde said it is plausible that Protea Chemicals, owned by Omnia Holdings, could have sold a chemical-grade zinc sulphate to a trader, who then sold it to a farmer. He explained that the chemical grade is not very pure and is only   for certain applications, adding that Omnia is a member of the FSSA and would not jeopardise its reputation. He warned farmers to purchase products only from reputable companies. “Farmers must be aware of ‘fly-by-nights’. Stick with larger companies,” he said.

Edu Cloete, joint managing director of Protea Chemicals, acknowledged media reports on the matter, but declined to comment on the issue as it is already the subject of litigation proceedings. “It would be inappropriate to pass comment at this time,” Cloete said.