Between a rock and a hard place

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

Imagine you’re a soldier and a civilian orders you to shoot someone. Or being told by someone’s sidekick to issue an order or a policy that could result in a biological threat and outbreak. These seem to be farfetched or made for TV series plots, but in reality something of the sort is reportedly happening at the Department of Agriculture.

For several weeks, if not months now, people identified with a certain Senior Undersecretary and called as “persons given authority but with no accountability” have been pressuring career officials and scientists to ease up on regulatory policies on importation of raw materials used for production and manufacturing of feeds etc. as well as the importation of finished products such as hams and chorizos or sausages for Christmas, and the now controversial ban on the sale of pompano and salmon belly and fish heads in wet markets.

As you may have read on the front page of The Philippine STAR, there have been moves by importers and traders for Congress to investigate the BFAR on the restriction which they have set on where imported salmon belly and fish heads may be sold. The BFAR defends its decision by stating that the law and guidelines for the seasonal ban provide for such policies in order to help affected local fishermen who lose space in wet markets occupied by imported trimmings and “trash” fish from Europe.

What is not being discussed is the dumping done on local markets that enrich importers, pleases Filipino consumers but totally wipes out traditional fishermen from better profits in urban wet markets.

According to insiders there has been a lot of pressure from traders and importers, as well as representations by a European ambassador, for the DA to soften its stance on the importation of other related products. For example, the DA placed a ban on PAPs or processed animal proteins that include, among others, pork blood-based proteins used in making fish pellets. The use of dried, heated and processed blood from animals like pigs is an affordable material that increases protein content of fish pellets used by tilapia and bangus farmers.

The problem is that blood and blood products are one of the primary ways for the ASF virus to enter the country and re-infect hog farms. Under natural circumstances, any infected material needs to be “cooked” or processed for at least 30 minutes which would make the blood byproducts or PAPs safe. However, it has been established, based on the exchange of data and statistics, that some countries export or sell more PAPs than they produce. In other words, the unscrupulous traders from the point of origin may be buying PAPs from neighbors who are covered by a ban due to the existence of active ASF cases, or do not comply or qualify with required standards for processing of PAPs.

On the local side, the DA policy makers also want strict implementation and monitoring of the importation, actual use and accounting of imported PAPs to make sure that each importer is not just a trader but actual user of PAP for manufacturing purposes, only brings in what they actually need and will use, that the imported products are used for the purpose applied for and that the materials are fully consumed and properly disposed of. The intention is that there is no over purchase or sale to third parties and no risk of misuse or mishandling of such products.

The dilemma of the DA scientists and career officials is that if you ease up on one, how do you enforce or ensure compliance and how do you stop other country sources from making diplomatic representations with Malacañang? The DA could lighten up on the PAP guidelines but it would be tempting fate to even consider the possibility of lifting the ban on “processed” meats such as ham and sausages from ASF-affected countries as well as poultry and by products that have self-declared the presence of avian influenza or some other type of bird flu.

In addition to the biological risks, the DA will have to contend with the often expressed opposition of animal industry stakeholders and organizations who resist all attempts to allow the importation of PAP and all other related products or materials from countries dealing with ASF or who have very poor monitoring capabilities. In fact, the industry representatives have refused to join the Technical Working Group (TWG) required to implement guidelines for PAPs.

If relaxation of restrictions happens and a directly related outbreak occurs, the DA officials will be crucified and not the super alalays of the Senior Undersecretary. As a result, a number of DA specialists, scientists and experts have found themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they play politics and do what the “sabits” suggest they do, who will take the blame and the fall for any negative consequences?

How do you tell Congress or a judge that you followed the instruction of an “alalay” who you knew all along would not be held accountable for a screw up or worse, a biological disaster? How do you defend yourself knowing that you know better than the lobbyist alalay ordering you around? Sadly, leaving the department has become inevitable for several experts, by force of circumstance.

One has been placed under preventive suspension for doing what needed to be done while Malacañang was trying to be politically correct; another has been told that he no longer holds the senior position he had, another was told on Viber that he was no longer part of the team. Ironically, they are now putting their expertise to good use by planting onions that sell for P400 a kilo! By next year they will all probably be working abroad!

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