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Jamaica Lifts Tilapia Import Ban

JAMAICA - The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries has yielded to strong pressure from local users of fish fillet in the hotel and fast-food sector, to lift a ban it had placed on the importation of tilapia mainly from China, whose product is said to be more than 100 per cent cheaper.

In April, Jamaica exercised its rights under World Trade Orga-nisation (WTO) rules to suspend fish imports from South East Asia, reports The Jamaica Gleaner.

The ban was implemented after the veterinary division of the agriculture ministry said the imports had not met sanitary and phytosanitary standards.

The fish ban had also been aimed at providing shelter for the flagging tilapia-production sector.

But on Monday, chief technical director in the agriculture ministry Dr Marc Panton told The Jamaica Gleaner that hoteliers were not prepared to buy tilapia fillet at the price set by local producers and as such, had demanded that the cheaper fillet imports from China be reinstated.

The lifting of the ban was effective Tuesday, November 2.

But while the authorities have caved in to the demands of the commercial users, consumers who purchase from the retail trade will still have to buy the more expensive local fish product.

Imports of tilapia are being restricted to quantities brought in before the ban.

Local fillet is priced at around J$450 per pound compared to J$210 per pound for frozen tilapia of Chinese origin.

Around 250,000 kilogrammes are brought in each year for the hotels and restaurant chains such as KFC and Burger King. There is a prohibition on the sale of the imported fish to the retail sector including supermarkets.

Last year, the import volumes were 207,000 kg of tilapia fillet. No fillets are currently being produced locally.

Mr Panton on Tuesday met with groups affected by the ban.

Last night he reported success from those talks.

"We have reached a gentleman's agreement with importers that none of the frozen fillet imported will reach the supermarkets," he said.

The talks included importers KFC, Burger King, Rainforest, Jamaica Broilers Group and PriceSmart, among others.

Speaking of the preparation of the fish in the local restaurant chains, the agriculture official said that some local value added was introduced into the trade in the imported product, as both Burger King and KFC "bread" the imported fillet here in Jamaica before it is used.

"The importers also promised to promote whole fish and jerk fish products produced by locals in their stores," he said.

The ministry has not, however, caved in on standards and will be sending a team to China before the end of the year, to inspect and approve sources of the tilapia fillet from which local importers will be allowed to buy directly. Currently the fish importation is done through middle men in the United Sates.

Direct imports, Mr Panton said, would also result in savings.

While the hotels and fast-food giants have got their way, they will not be getting off scotch free, it appears.

Mr Panton has unveiled a plan to introduce, what he said was not a cess, but a contribution, from importers. The payment will go towards the development of the entire fishing industry.

The money, he said, would also be used for a public education campaign to improve public acceptance of farm-raised fish. He said there was currently a negative attitude towards the product among many consumers.

"We will also be streamlining the marketing system, working closer with processors such as Rainforest so that they can increase the market for exports in terms of value-added products," Mr Panton said.

"While fillet is a challenge, there is good potential for the whole fish market," he said.

The action taken by the ministry in April, Mr Panton said, had been based on reports received by his ministry from international sources.

At the same time, he stressed that the ministry was moving aggressively to revive the once-vibrant tilapia sector, which had been wiped out by the cheaper imports.

An Aquaculture Fish Monitoring Committee, he said, had been created to help in the resuscitation of the industry and to determine supply and demand issues.

The fast-food sector was previously a strong market for Jamaican tilapia, but it lost a big source of supply when Jamaica Broilers Group gave up local markets in favour of exports of the product within the last decade. The poultry group, however, lost big on fish sales overseas and eventually withdrew from the tilapia export business in 2008.

the Fish Site Editor

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