Fertiliser destroyed, but cadmium lingers

By Time of article published Jul 13, 2007

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Cape Town - Fertiliser and animal feed containing zinc sulphate had been destroyed and encased in concrete when they were found to contain higher than permissible levels of cadmium, Allen Duncan, the chairman of the Eastern Cape Pineapple Association, said this week.

Duncan disclosed earlier this week that Switzerland had rejected 100 tons of canned pineapples in five containers because they exceeded the maximum Swiss and EU cadmium level of 0.05 parts per million (ppm). The US, Australia and Japan allow levels of 0.1 ppm.

The Eastern Cape produces cayenne pineapples which have been found to contain excessively high levels of cadmium, a toxic heavy metal.

This was apparently due to zinc sulphate fertiliser sourced from China and distributed from East London to Bathurst by Protea Chemicals, a subsidiary of Omnia Chemicals.

Zinc is a trace element and is used across the entire agricultural chain in South Africa.

Edu Cloete, a joint managing director of Protea Chemicals, has repeatedly declined to comment on how much of the contaminated fertiliser was imported, where it was distributed and what happened to the remainder when it was found to contain excessive levels of cadmium.

He said it would be "inappropriate" to comment because the company was involved in litigation in the Durban high court, where Rainbow Chickens has claimed R120 million in damages for contaminated feed.

Two other potential litigants, the pineapple association and German multinational BASF, have sent Protea Chemicals letters of demand.

A spokesperson for the national department of agriculture said it had been alerted to the contamination by a law firm acting for two pineapple canneries, Summer Food and Collondale Cannery.

Inspectors immediately went to Protea to obtain samples from the imported fertiliser and laboratory tests indicated high levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead.

Although current regulations do not prescribe maximum levels for heavy metals in fertilisers, the chemicals were seized and placed in quarantine until an amicable solution can be reached. The possibility of prescribing maximum permissible levels of heavy metals for fertilisers is being investigated.

The department said the Feeds and Fertiliser Act of 1947 did not regulate food and food products. It only regulated fertilisers, farm feeds, agricultural and stock remedies.

"We believe that the measures put in place for the regulations of agricultural products are adequate, but need some improvements in certain areas," the department said.

Now that the department is aware of the problem, it has started consultations with stakeholders with a view to stipulating permissible levels of heavy metals in the regulations.

Duncan said that while the cadmium levels in the exported produce exceeded the European and Swiss limits, they were still within levels accepted elsewhere in the world. He said pineapple producers in the Eastern Cape would now seek other markets for their produce.

The fertiliser, used by 40 pineapple farmers in East London, contained 67 percent cadmium and was classified as hazardous waste in its concentrated form.

Anyone who handled it without gloves would suffer serious harm.

The fertiliser is normally handled with bare hands.

The contaminated chemical product had to be destroyed through controlled dumping and the contaminated feed and fertiliser had to be encased in concrete, he said.

Duncan said farmers had bought the fertiliser between 2004 and last November, but it was removed from all the farms when it was found to be out of specification.

"Surely has a duty to the public to say who's bought it and try and get it back from them," he said.

"They also need to tell us if they've recalled it from all their stores and what they are going to do to ensure this won't happen again. Unfortunately greed is more important than product integrity in this case."

The pineapple association, which is quantifying damages, has already sent Protea a letter of demand. The matter may proceed to litigation if it is not satisfactorily resolved.

Pieter de Jager, the chairman of the Hluhluwe Queen Pineapple Marketing Association, said most members of the northern KwaZulu-Natal body exported fresh fruit to the EU, US, UK and United Arab Emirates. The produce had therefore been tested to stringent EU standards, which ensured consumer safety.

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