"Ergot"

To Egyptian Dinner Tables

Egyptian government decisions allow the import of ergot-infected wheat despite risks

14/10/2020

In April 2018, a cargo ship carrying 63,000 tonnes of Ergot-infected wheat sailed from the Russian port of Novorossiysk, across the Black Sea, to the Egyptian port of Safaga.

This wheat consignment, imported by the Egyptian General Authority for Supply Commodities, the biggest purchaser of Russian wheat in the world, wasn’t the first found to be contaminated with the toxic fungus. In the spring of 2009, a consignment of Ergot-infected Russian wheat unloaded in the same port of Safaga. This prompted a turning point that overthrew consumer protection valves and led to the amendment of criteria and conditions for wheat imports.

Initially, the government of the then-prime minister Ahmed Nazif banned the entry of consignments infected with Ergot, under the pretext that they were unfit for human consumption. Yet the following year its decision was revoked, as the government changed wheat import specifications in contravention of the 2001 Plant Quarantine Rules & Regulations.

Egypt largely relies on importing low-quality types of Russian wheat, especially since the suspension of the Wheat Farmers Support program at the beginning of 2017, which led to local wheat crop recession. This resulted in a 12% decline in domestic production in three years; from 9.3 million tonnes in 2016 to 8.1 million tonnes in 2019.

The decrease in Egypt's domestic wheat production
2016
9.3
million tonnes
2019
8.1
million tonnes

This investigation reveals how the Egyptian government allowed the entry of ergot-infected wheat consignments to Egyptian dinner tables, in proportions exceeding Egypt’s standards, internationally permissible limits and the Egyptian Plant Quarantine legislation. From 2010 to 2016, 27 million tonnes worth of consignments were sent to Egypt.

The consumption of ergot can have serious medical side effects including miscarriage, narrowed blood vessels, dysfunction of the central nervous system, uterine contraction and gangrene, which can cause death.

The shipment of Russian wheat that arrived to Egypt in 2018 did not fit the Egyptian Specification Standards, according to a sample analysis conducted by the ARIJ reporter.

The reporter also found that the Supply Commodities Authority - revoking a previous ban – allowed the entry of ergot-infected wheat.

Russian Domination

After Egypt modified its main specification standards for importing wheat in 2010, consignments of Russian wheat arriving to the country gradually increased, according to the annual reports issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Supply.

2015-2014
2016-2015
2018-2017
2019-2018
Russia
United State
Ukraine
France
Romania

Solaris, a Swiss company specialized in agricultural inspections, warned in 2017 that the Egyptian Supply Commodities Authority had been purchasing wheat below the specified quality allowed in the sale of Russian wheat.

Solaris, a Swiss company specialized in agricultural inspections, warned in 2017 that the Egyptian Supply Commodities Authority had been purchasing wheat below the specified quality allowed in the sale of Russian wheat.

Russian wheat is graded on a scale of five, with the first to third being of the best quality, and the fourth and fifth failing standards. The Solaris report found that Egypt imports the fourth category.

On Its Way

On March 29, 2018, the Supply Commodities Authority launched a bid to import an unspecified amount of wheat to be transported on board a cargo ship named “DIAS”. Ten companies - eight Russian, one French and one Romanian - made bids. Although Russian wheat was not the best for quality, it won the bid for other reasons, namely the short distance between Russia’s two main on the Black Sea and Egypt’s Safaga port.

Russian wheat also gained preferential points over others when in the fiscal year of 2013-2014, the Supply Commodities Authority reduced the time between buying and shipping wheat to six weeks at the latest.

Russian wheat eventually became the only option for Egypt, especially as the prices in the Commodities Authority’s bids were in line with the announced prices of Russian wheat, according to a 2018 report issued by the German Leibniz Institute.
Free on Board (F.O.B) whereby the product is delivered at the port of shipment in the country of origin on board of a ship chosen by the buyer.

“These conditions led to the closure of the U.S. Wheat Associates office in Cairo in October 2017, 40 years after its foundation,” according to Steve Mercer, vice president of the association’s contact unit.

Mercer, in an email to ARIJ, describes the authority’s reduction in the bid’s wheat consignment period as a "consistent disadvantage", adding that "the shipping costs from the East American ports are close to the shipping costs from the Black Sea ports.”

The FAO’s 2018 study claims that the policy of reducing shipping time, or short-term declaration, "has lost the Egyptian government between 25 and 30 million dollars annually." The UN organisation attributes the loss to wheat supplying companies raising the price of a ton of wheat supplied to the Commodity Authority to between $6 and $7, compared to private sector companies, which do not obligate the reduction shipping duration.

The FAO concluded that the authority resorted to short-term declaration because of its inability to provide storage silos, knowing that Egypt launched a national silo project in 2015. The project targeted the establishment of 50 silos to store wheat and grain in 17 governorates, with a total storage capacity of 1.5 million tonnes. But after facing problems in storing grains and maintaining their quality, as a 2014 report conducted by ARIJ found, these barns were permanently canceled.

The Commodity Authority declined comment on multiple occasions.

ابدأ الرحلة

The Beginning

About a thousand kilometers from Moscow, a yellow color taints the wheat of Krasnodar. There, amid the cold breeze and fading sun of May, farmers struggle in difficult conditions to collect the crop, before its transportation by river boat to grain silos in preparation for the start of the next wheat marketing season of January, February and March.

“The purchase of large quantities of wheat during the first three months of the year at a reduced price is due to its low-quality, consisting of dust and impurities," Dr. Mohamed Yousry Hashem told ARIJ.

Dr Hashem is the head of the first governmental committee to examine the quality of Russian wheat, formed in 2008 after a decision by the Egyptian Public Prosecutor following the appearance of what was known at the time as “rotten Russian wheat”.

The Beginning

About a thousand kilometers from Moscow, a yellow color taints the wheat of Krasnodar. There, amid the cold breeze and fading sun of May, farmers struggle in difficult conditions to collect the crop, before its transportation by river boat to grain silos in preparation for the start of the next wheat marketing season of January, February and March.

“The purchase of large quantities of wheat during the first three months of the year at a reduced price is due to its low-quality, consisting of dust and impurities," Dr. Mohamed Yousry Hashem told ARIJ.

Dr Hashem is the head of the first governmental committee to examine the quality of Russian wheat, formed in 2008 after a decision by the Egyptian Public Prosecutor following the appearance of what was known at the time as “rotten Russian wheat”.

The Loading Dock

Until November 2016, Egyptian government officials participated in the examination and analysis process in the country of origin. However after the 2016 ergot ban crisis, the Egyptian Cabinet issued a decision to dismiss government committees and limit the government committee’s role to monitoring the unloading of cargoes in Egyptian ports.

The General Authority for Supply Commodities has contracts with five international companies to examine wheat consignments at the port of origin: "Intertek, Cotecna, SGS, Control Union, Inspectorate, and Comibassalthe local Egyptian company," according to Ali Hassan, an agricultural division official at Control Union.

The Loading Dock

Until November 2016, Egyptian government officials participated in the examination and analysis process in the country of origin. However after the 2016 ergot ban crisis, the Egyptian Cabinet issued a decision to dismiss government committees and limit the government committee’s role to monitoring the unloading of cargoes in Egyptian ports.

The General Authority for Supply Commodities has contracts with five international companies to examine wheat consignments at the port of origin: "Intertek, Cotecna, SGS, Control Union, Inspectorate, and Comibassalthe local Egyptian company," according to Ali Hassan, an agricultural division official at Control Union.

Ali Hassan, an official at Control Union, one of the companies contracted by the Commodity Authority to examine wheat consignments, explains that inspection companies adhere to the rules of Grain and Food Association.

"The role of inspection companies is limited to measuring the proportions of protein, gluten and dead insects in wheat consignments," he added.

Dr. Ali Suleiman, the former head of the Department of Agricultural Quarantine, told ARIJ that "they cannot implement agricultural quarantine due to lack of experience, as most of them are only quality control companies, and their opinion on quarantining is insignificant.”

Eventually, the DIAS cargo ship set off on a four-week trip from the Novorossiysk port towards the port of Safaga, loading 63,000 tons inside seven hangars after being given the ok by the inspection commission of the International Inspection Company.

Ali Hassan, an official at Control Union, one of the companies contracted by the Commodity Authority to examine wheat consignments, explains that inspection companies adhere to the rules of Grain and Food Association.

"The role of inspection companies is limited to measuring the proportions of protein, gluten and dead insects in wheat consignments," he added.

Dr. Ali Suleiman, the former head of the Department of Agricultural Quarantine, told ARIJ that "they cannot implement agricultural quarantine due to lack of experience, as most of them are only quality control companies, and their opinion on quarantining is insignificant.”

Eventually, the DIAS cargo ship set off on a four-week trip from the Novorossiysk port towards the port of Safaga, loading 63,000 tons inside seven hangars after being given the ok by the inspection commission of the International Inspection Company.

Dock No. 1

On the evening of May 24, 2018, DIAS arrived at dock No. 1 in the port of Safaga. The consignment was received for examination by a governmental committee under the authority of the General Authority for Export and Import Control, in accordance with both the Egyptian specification for wheat imports issued in 2010 and the Agricultural Quarantine Law.

The wheat import standard specification opposes the Agricultural Quarantine Law, as the former allows the entrance of wheat infected with ergot fungus by a percentage of no more than 0.05%, whereas the latter prohibits the import of ergot entirely.

Egyptian specifications approved in 2010, was the main reason doors opened to the import of ergot-infected Russian wheat, as the previous specifications invoked agricultural quarantine laws in terms of measuring and analyzing proportions of toxic fungus.

But in 2010, a committee was charged with setting a new standard. One committee member, head of the CAQA at the time, Dr. Ali Suleiman, opposed the newly proposed standards.

"Our position was clear," he told the ARIJ reporter, "we should adhere to the quarantine legislation, as was previously done." However, contrary to his desire, the committee insisted on other stakeholders to prepare the standard in violation of the Agricultural Quarantine Law.

Dock No. 1

On the evening of May 24, 2018, DIAS arrived at dock No. 1 in the port of Safaga. The consignment was received for examination by a governmental committee under the authority of the General Authority for Export and Import Control, in accordance with both the Egyptian specification for wheat imports issued in 2010 and the Agricultural Quarantine Law.

The wheat import standard specification opposes the Agricultural Quarantine Law, as the former allows the entrance of wheat infected with ergot fungus by a percentage of no more than 0.05%, whereas the latter prohibits the import of ergot entirely.

Egyptian specifications approved in 2010, was the main reason doors opened to the import of ergot-infected Russian wheat, as the previous specifications invoked agricultural quarantine laws in terms of measuring and analyzing proportions of toxic fungus.

But in 2010, a committee was charged with setting a new standard. One committee member, head of the CAQA at the time, Dr. Ali Suleiman, opposed the newly proposed standards.

"Our position was clear," he told the ARIJ reporter, "we should adhere to the quarantine legislation, as was previously done." However, contrary to his desire, the committee insisted on other stakeholders to prepare the standard in violation of the Agricultural Quarantine Law.

Entities that participated in drafting wheat import specification 1601

Twenty entities from government institutions and private companies participated in drafting the Egyptian standard specification approved on February 8, 2010. These included the Egyptian Organization for Standardization and Quality - Popular Agricultural entity - Nutrition Institute of the Egyptian Ministry of Health - Central Labs Department at the Egyptian Ministry of Health - Food Control Department of the Ministry of Health Egyptian - Supply Commodities Authority - Grain and Cereal Products Industry Chamber - General Silos and Storage - Agricultural Quarantine of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture - Chemistry Department - Export and Import Control Authority - Food Industries Holding Company - Ministry of Social Solidarity - Food Technology Research Institute - Central Institute for Estimating Pesticide Residues and Heavy Metals in Food - National Research Center - S.G.S Company - Cotecna Inspection Company - Inspectorate Inspection Company - Reinforcement Authority of the Ministry of Defense.
Entities that participated in drafting wheat import specification 1601

Twenty entities from government institutions and private companies participated in drafting the Egyptian standard specification approved on February 8, 2010. These included the Egyptian Organization for Standardization and Quality - Popular Agricultural entity - Nutrition Institute of the Egyptian Ministry of Health - Central Labs Department at the Egyptian Ministry of Health - Food Control Department of the Ministry of Health Egyptian - Supply Commodities Authority - Grain and Cereal Products Industry Chamber - General Silos and Storage - Agricultural Quarantine of the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture - Chemistry Department - Export and Import Control Authority - Food Industries Holding Company - Ministry of Social Solidarity - Food Technology Research Institute - Central Institute for Estimating Pesticide Residues and Heavy Metals in Food - National Research Center - S.G.S Company - Cotecna Inspection Company - Inspectorate Inspection Company - Reinforcement Authority of the Ministry of Defense.

0.05 Percent

On Dock No. 1 inside the port of Safaga, the government committee took samples from the wheat loaded on DIAS. After examining it, agricultural quarantine employees refused its entry into Egypt due to the recorded presence of ergot at 0.06%; exceeding the standard specification issued in 2010, which allows the entry of fungus, but by a rate not exceeding 0.05%.

However, the Egyptian Cabinet headed by Sherif Ismail (Egypt’s prime minister between 2015 and 2018) allowed the wheat loaded on the "DIAS" ship to enter after ordering analysis of different samples. The new samples recorded the presence of ergot at 0.01%.

0.05 Percent

On Dock No. 1 inside the port of Safaga, the government committee took samples from the wheat loaded on DIAS. After examining it, agricultural quarantine employees refused its entry into Egypt due to the recorded presence of ergot at 0.06%; exceeding the standard specification issued in 2010, which allows the entry of fungus, but by a rate not exceeding 0.05%.

However, the Egyptian Cabinet headed by Sherif Ismail (Egypt’s prime minister between 2015 and 2018) allowed the wheat loaded on the "DIAS" ship to enter after ordering analysis of different samples. The new samples recorded the presence of ergot at 0.01%.

Krasnodar
Moscow
Rostov
Novorossiysk
Safaga
Cairo

But this was not the first consignment rejected by employees of the State Committee for Export Control. In 2016, another consignment was refused due to high rates of ergot.

Fact Box: Governmental Inspection Committee for Wheat Examination The Governmental Inspection Committee includes four ministries: Health charged with hygienic and nutritional examination; Agriculture, charged with phytosanitary inspection, Trade and Industry charged with measuring the quality of wheat, and finally the Ministry of Electricity charged with measuring the proportion of nuclear radiation. The last is the first to receive the consignment before its entry into the port.

The sample holds a secret number, with the aim of not revealing the identity of the importer, and then it is divided between three examination agencies specializing in writing the technical report: "Institute of Plant and Insect Diseases - Seed Institute - Institute of Weeds".

That same refusal prompted the SCA to cancel seven subsequent bids. At that time, a conflict took place between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Agricultural Quarantine Administration on the one hand, and the Ministry of Health, the General Authority for Supply Commodities, and the General Authority for Export and Import Control on the other. The friction point was "ergot fungus".

The Cabinet headed by Sherif Ismail put an end to the conflict and defended the Supply Commodities Authority, ignoring the Agricultural Quarantine Law of 2016 which states that the import of wheat will be according to the Egyptian standard specification for import.

The Egyptian Cabinet adopted the opinion of expert Filia Arriagada, who works for the FAO. Ariagada issued a report in April 2016 that allowed the entry of Ergot, justifying her recommendations by stating that "the Egyptian environment is not suitable for endemism of ergot, due to the high temperatures."

Filia Arriagada told the ARIJ reporter via email that the Egyptian government did not entrust her with conducting a study on the dangers of ergot fungus with wheat, stressing that the request came from the FAO under a contract signed with the international organization.

However, the scientific committee charged by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture refutes Arriagada’s report, calling it "non-binding, not real and a hypothetical study." In its August 2016 report, the committee holds that a practical experiment refutes the hypothesis. It found that "the average temperatures in the governorates of El Beheira ,Minya, Sohag, and Qena were appropriate for the growth of ergot’s fruiting bodies.”

The Scientific Committee estimates the loss of Egypt - if the ergot fungus is ended in its soil - from 5 to 40% of the acre's productivity. The fungus also leads to a decrease in wheat’s quality and price.

This is consistent with a report issued in mid-2016 by the technical committee charged by the Public Prosecution to disclose the risks of ergot. That committee demanded the implementation of Resolution No. 906 of 2012, which requires the implementation of the Agricultural Quarantine Law to ban imported wheat contaminated with Ergot. However, the government did not abide by this despite its association with a judicial order.

The technical committee concluded that permitting the import of wheat contaminated with 0.05% of ergot fungus, means that each kilogramme of wheat contains 10 fungus fruiting bodies. Thus, if the volume of Egypt's import of Russian ergot-infected wheat reaches 11 million tons, the volume of fruiting bodies in that quantity will reach 5.5 thousand tons of ergot. After grinding, a kilogram of flour will contain 50 milligrams of fruiting bodies, equivalent to 1,666 times the amount allowed in U.S. flour.

Inspections at Alexandria

In August 2018, the ARIJ reporter waited at the port of Alexandria for the arrival of a new consignment from the Novonorsk port, less than a month after its import contract was signed. The consignment of wheat, estimated at 175,000 tons, arrived on three cargo ships.

With the help of a source inside an oversight body who requested anonymity, the reporter obtained a sample of the shipment for analysis. The sample was then tested with the assistance of a specialist at the Agriculture Ministry’s Regional Center for Food & Feed.

The result of the analysis issued in October 2018 revealed that the percentage of impurities and ergot exceeded 5.6% - significantly above the permitted percentage in the Egyptian standard specification of 0.05%.

Sample test results

Specified or Specific gravity
59.6 Lbs/ bushel
Debris and stranges
2.28 %
Damaged grains
1.33 %
Sample size
3 kilograms
Impurities
5.6 %

Wheat and Flour

Consignments of ergot-contaminated wheat were welcomed into Egypt, and the Supply Commodities Authority began grinding it into flour, in preparation for its distribution to local bread bakeries. But does toxic ergot-infected flour reach Egyptian tables and Egyptian soil?

Head of the Central Administration of Plant Quarantine (CAPQ) Dr. Ahmed Al-Attar describes the possibility that ergot combines with Egyptian soil as a "disaster". However, at the level of the wheat grinning process, he says that experiments have proven that the use of garbling via mechanical separation is sufficient to separate ergot from wheat.

But a document issued in 2009 by the European Food Safety Authority questioned the effectiveness of "mechanical separation" in removing ergot from wheat, especially with the disintegration of the fruiting bodies of the fungus during transportation. The report recommends the use of physical separation methods, most notably "electronic separators" or "color sorters" that are not used in Egypt. But even with the use of these technologies, it is unlikely to totally remove the fungus, according to the European Authority, which also warns of the risk of human poisoning from eating bread containing ergot.

Use Bichromatic or Monochromatic Cameras to inspect the Color spectrum and differentiate wheat grain and ergot. It is used in the mills of Sweden, France and Russia.

Both the FAO at the UN’s 40th session in July 2017, and the World Health Organization at its 11th session in Brazil in April 2017, recommended using Color Sorters to separate ergot and remove fruiting bodies. Neither mentioned garbling as a method for ergot fungus separation.

Professor of Biological Agriculture at the University of Menoufia’s Institute of Genetic Engineering Research, Dr. Fathi Salem, explains that a 0.05% intake of ergot will cause cumulative health problems.

Dr. Salem added that he found that a loaf of local bread, whose weight ranges between 110 to 125 grams, will contain 48 to 52 milligrams of ergot.

He also confirms that ergot is the most harmful fungus to the human body and plants, because the fruiting bodies in the fungus contain two active substances called Ergotamine and disergenicasic, which can lead to miscarriage.

Dr. Salem concludes that the International Food Codex allows 0.05% of ergot based on the average consumption of 60 to 63kg of wheat annually, at a monthly rate of around 5kg. This equation applies to the European individual, but the Egyptian citizen consumes three times this rate -– from 180 to 210kg annually.

The Egyptian government, represented by the Ministry of Supply, concluded an agreement with the WHO to improve the quality of imported wheat. However, this project was invalid in 2012 for four years after its launch, due to discontinued funding, according to Adel Tolba, the agent of the Egyptian company which supervised the project by adding chemicals during the grinding process.

Egypt’s Health Ministry did not respond to numerous requests for comment. However, the reporter obtained a memorandum issued by the Ministry in June 2016, in which it agreed that the entry of Ergot would not exceed 0.05%. The ministry justified the decision by removing fungus through grinding. It also considered it “illogical” to conduct a scientific study to assess the risk of ergot.

Both the General Authority for Export and Import Control and the General Authority for Supply Commodities declined comment.

In conclusion, the consignments of ergot-infected Russian wheat that have been admitted into Egypt over the past 10 years have infused into the loaves of hot bread - the pillar of the Egyptian table. Government decisions have allowed its citizens to buy, sell and eat bread that contains fungus that can have sometimes deadly health consequences, but that also threatens the fertility of Egyptian soil and future generations.

This investigation was done with the support of a Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ).

Credit
  • Investigation
  • Mohammed Hamid
  • Design and development
  • Saleem Sakakini and Aya Almanaseer
  • supervision
  • Mohamed Abodief and Mohammed Komani
  • General supervision
  • Saad Hattar
Ergot in Crops
x

Ergot in Crops

Heretofore, 40 known species of ergot fungus exist in 76 countries, while 34 countries, including Egypt, are free from ergot. The toxic fungus infects Gramineae crops, such as wheat, barley, corn, and soybeans, and consequently reduces crop productivity. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) determines the permissible proportion of ergot at 0.6 micrograms per kilogram per a person’s weight in human food.

Source: 2016 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study