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PIMENTEL: PROBE ‘TOXIC’, UNDERVALUED TURKISH FLOURSenate Minority Leader Aquilino Q. Pimentel, Jr. urged today the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Department of Health (DOH) and the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) to investigate reports that the health of Filipino consumers is being put in grave danger by the sale of pan de sal made from contaminated and potentially toxic Turkish flour. At the same time, Pimentel asked the Department of Finance (DOF) and the Bureau of Customs (BoC) to look into reports of technical smuggling of the commodity into the country.
Pimentel said that the government may be “playing Russian roulette with the health of our people by allowing the importation of Turkish flour.”
The senator said he found it disturbing that while Turkey exports wheat flour, it also imports flour for the consumption of its own people. “When one refrains from consuming what one produces, questions are raised," he said. "Why should we eat bread made from flour which its own producer does not want to touch?” he asked.
A study published by the Journal of Food and Drug (Vol. 16, No. 2, 2008) entitled “Total Aflatoxin, Aflatoxin B1 and Ochratoxin A Levels in Turkish Wheat Flour”, confirmed that Turkish flour is contaminated by mycotoxins “known to exert toxic effect on human and animal health.”
The tests on Turkish flour conducted in 2007 by leading Turkish universities, including Istanbul University, showed that 81 percent of samples of flour taken were contaminated with OTA.
“OTA in high levels could cause the increase of urethra, renal and pelvis tumors in the region,” said the study in its results and conclusion, which traced mycotoxin contamination of Turkish flour to humidity and temperature changes. “Risk originated from mycotoxins should not be omitted in point of public health,” it warned.
Pimentel said that while Turkey may claim that the levels of mycotoxins in the flour it exports are tolerable, he stressed that Philippine health authorities should not take their word for it.
“We cannot feed our people bread made from raw materials that may cause cancer. It's as simple as that. At the very least, the DOH and BFAD must conduct their own tests. As we all know, people will say anything just to conclude a sale,” he pointed out.
Big bread manufacturers in the Philippines refrain from using Turkish flour because it does not meet their standards, but small bakers are known to use Turkish flour, sourcing it in Divisoria and elsewhere, to increase their profit margin.
Turkish flour is primarily used in so-called poor man's breads like pan de sal, monay, pan de coco and pan de limon. “As always, it is the poor Filipinos who suffer, in this case probably not knowing the risk to their health of that bread they are eating,” said Pimentel.
Experienced bakers say that breads made from Turkish flour are darker in color, have coarser textures and sometimes have an off-putting smell.
The Turkish study said that the invasion of cereal grain by fungi is frequently associated with a substantial risk of contamination by mycotoxins, thus the need for legislation to ensure that their presence in food and feeds is minimized.
“If even in Turkey they have expressed misgivings as to the quality and safety of their flour, more so should we,” said Pimentel. “No one wants to eat cancer-causing bread.”
Pimentel noted that authorities in Indonesia are already moving to stop the dumping of Turkish flour into their country, a development which the senator said the Philippines must seriously look into.
“What is being done by the DTI and the Bureau of Customs (BoC) about the entry into our country of reportedly contaminated Turkish flour, when the same seems to be unwanted in many other countries like Indonesia?” asked Pimentel.
Just last year and in the first two months of 2010, roughly 25,000 metric tons of flour from Turkey entered the Philippines, primarily in the Visayas and Mindanao, and were declared at low values and thus paid low duties, according to local flour millers.
The shipments were valued at just $96 per ton instead of the average $300, thereby causing the government to lose some P20 million in import duties and value-added taxes, the group said.
Pimentel noted the complaint raised by the Philippine Association of Flour Millers (Pafmil) that the government may have lost some P20 million in import duties and value added taxes because of the entry of “undervalued” wheat flour from Turkey in 2009 and the first two months of 2010.
“Turkish flour imports had been pegged at a low value of $96 per metric ton. Ranged against the import value reference of customs at $300 per metric ton (MT), that’s a lot of money being lost by the government,” said Pimentel.
“What’s dismaying is that the reported undervaluation of flour imports from Turkey are said to be happening right at the Port of Manila and the Manila International Container Port (MICP), with the BoC and the DOF doing nothing to stop it,” the senator added.
From a low volume of 660 metric tons of Turkish flour imported into the Philippines in 2004, its volume steadily increased to 1,516 MT in 2005, 5,126 MT in 2006, dropped in 2007 to 1,208 MT, and then increased many times over to 16,721 MT in 2008.
Pimentel asked the DOF and the BoC to look into Pafmil’s revelation that of the over 86,000 MT of flour imported from Turkey in 2009, some 19,000 were undervalued, causing the government to lose around P16.9 million in revenues.
Another P3 million in uncollected import duty and value-added tax had been lost from the 6,000 MT of the 13,695 MT of flour imports in January-February of this year which were claimed to have been undervalued.
Last March, Turkish flour arrivals at MIPC and POM totaled 12,100 metric tons or a whopping 86.4 percent of all imported flour arrivals.
“The figures that had been cited are only those from MICP and the Port of Manila. This is just the tip of the iceberg because technical smuggling of Turkish flour is surely happening also in other ports in the Visayas and Mindanao,” said Pimentel.
Undervaluation and misdeclaration are forms of technical smuggling which, Pimentel said, do not only rob the government of much-needed revenues, but also pose unfair competition to local industries.
Local flour millers had said that they could not possibly compete with Turkish flour if it would not be assessed the proper taxes, especially since its production is subsidized by the Turkish government.
Wheat flour is slapped a 7-percent import duty and a value-added tax of 12 percent.
In Indonesia, moves are already afoot to stop the dumping of Turkish flour into the country through the imposition of heftier duties.
Aside from Pafmil, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Philippine Federation of Industries have already called the attention of BOC officials to the undervalued imports, but to no avail.