Kiribati gains authorisation to access the EU market. What does it means and how it works? / by Francisco Blaha

Since the 16 of June 2017 via Commission Implementing Decision (EU) 2017/1089, 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. Yet, 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!

 are you EU elegible?

are you EU elegible?

My post today is on how that process works and a bit of 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 this Regulation.  When drawing up such lists, an account is taken of EC controls in 3rd countries and guarantees provided by the Competent Authority (CA) of 3rd countries in regard to compliance or equivalence with the relevant EU (health) regulations.

If a country’s control systems are considered “equivalent”, then it is authorised for fishery products and added Annex II of Commission Decision 2006/766/EC. Then the CA of that country evaluates compliance against the EU regulations by their factories and vessels (they call then Food Business Operators - FBOs). If they are up to the standards and expected levels of compliances, it then lists them (by giving them an approval number) and sends them to the EU, to be added to the list approved establishments of that country.

At this stage, the 1st list of 5 vessels and one factory has been sent to the EU for the revision, and once this is done and the FBO would appear in the list, and from then on they can access the EU market.

This all process is quite complex, and it takes countries like Kiribati a long time and effort to get to this point.

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, meaning than Kiribati has to prove that has systems and controls equivalent to those of Germany for example.

Yet many Small Island Developing States in the Pacific (SIDS) like Kiribati, remain in the category of Least Developed Countries (LDC) recognised by the UN. 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. 

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, and all of them continues to rely to a different extent on donor funding to maintain its CA.

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 countries (like Taiwan, China or Korea) catching next to them, even if the inspectors of those flag states, may have never been on board!  

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;

This “eligibility” requirement, should be always applied, yet this is unfortunately no the case in all canning countries, in Thailand for example, this issue already got them into troubles with the EU

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.

And to make things more complicated we have to add the fact 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. And while these vessels unload locally or in other 3rd countries for processing or shipment to processing facilities with the potential to export to EU markets, there is normally no one on board that has real link to the flagging state, or even speak and read the countries language or English, hence they are not particularly keen to have HACCP plans on board, records, train crew, and have inspectors coming to check their records.

Until now, much of the SIDS effort to gain or sustain EU Market access has been supported in one way or another by FFA and SPC, particularly in the areas of training, legislation updates, reciprocal inspections, institutional strengthening, laboratories and control systems development (in many cases funded with EU support).

These inputs have been instrumental in getting Kiribati to this stage. The process was initiated s back in 2012 under the EU funded/FFA managed DevFish II Programme. For that, w adapted the National Control Plan (NCP) that Francisco “invented” for Ecuador in 2007 and then we used to help Fiji back into the EU.

We went through 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 set up the rules in which the country “EU system” is to based, as to provide the “official assurances” the EU requires and 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. 

We 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 :-)

Since 2014 FFA has taken the lead by employing Jope Tamai and contracting Cushla Hogart a very experienced consultant from NZ and both enhanced the NCP approach and with the local support of Terere, Tebeio from the Kiribati Seafood Verification Authority (KSVA) and now Saurara a former CA officer from Fiji that is based supporting this process under funding from NZ MFAT have done the massive groundwork that took them up to the present.

The reality is that getting to this point was already a long road. Yet, as in many other areas, it takes an equal amount to effort maintain your self at the top spot, than what it took you to get there, so the real work load just started for Kiribati.

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.