JIS News

Government will cease reduced duty rates on imported tomatoes, cabbage and lettuce as of December 31, 2004. Making the announcement at a post Cabinet press briefing on Monday (December 20), Information Minister, Senator Burchell Whiteman said this was due to the fact that the local production of these three vegetables had reached an almost satisfactory level and were beginning to appear on the market in reasonable quantities. The duty reduction on carrots will however be extended to January 2005 as this produce takes much longer to mature.
The move to reduce duty rates on select vegetable imports was taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan, which hit the Island on September 10, severely affecting the agricultural sector.
Meanwhile, Senator Whiteman told journalists that the problems related to pricing, which posed a major concern for consumers post Hurricane Ivan, had now been correctly identified and that normality was expected to return to the market shortly.
He further explained that reports from the team appointed by Prime Minister P.J. Patterson to investigate the matter had shown that there were discrepancies at the point of customs in respect of the C78 import entry, making it necessary for a further review of the numbers and procedures to be undertaken.
Senator Whiteman said it was felt by the investigator that the true quantity of goods imported were not necessarily reflected on the forms and that some of the pricing which followed was “inexplicable”.
“If those figures were to be believed then some importers would not be in business because it was suggested that they were selling to the trade at a loss and that clearly could not be the case, so there was obviously some error,” he noted.
Furthermore the report showed that when the four produce types were purchased, the form indicated all four being priced at the same level even though the items attracted varying prices. Senator Whiteman said while not attempting to level any accusations, the government was satisfied that there were irregularities at different points.
He further noted that recent consumer experience had shown that since the public exposure of the issue in mid November prices had been trending downward.
The Information Minister further said that in respect of the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC), the board had acknowledged that errors were made and had given the assurance that since these were significantly related to the post Ivan situation the problem would not reoccur. He however noted that the errors made within the Commission while serious, “were not grievous to the point of causing irreparable damage”.
On the matter of recommendations Minister Whiteman said, the specially appointed team had submitted that any future importation of fresh produce in an emergency situation should be handled differently in the event of natural disasters.
It has also been recommended that a mechanism be implemented to link importers and the Ministries of Agriculture, and Commerce, Science and Technology, further ensuring that consumers would benefit from any duty reduction granted to importers.
was also agreed that the recommended sale price to consumers be published on a regular basis throughout the period when the special duty regime was applied. The CAC will take steps to strengthen staffing, training and systems given its increased responsibilities under the Consumer Protection Act.
Additionally a permanent information sharing system is to be developed for use by the groups and a public relations programme put in place to ensure that the government’s commitment to a free market operation remains apparent.

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