Apple export Thailand: what are the obstacles?

Export mele Thailandia

For years, Italian apple producers have been waiting for new markets to open up in Asia. Meanwhile, others are opening them…

Italy is one of the world’s leading apple producers, with a market strongly based on exports.

Most exports are to EU countries, followed by the Middle East and North Africa.

After the export ban on Russia, no new markets have been opened up. Unfortunately, exports to North Africa (main buyers Egypt and Libya) have collapsed (230,000 tonnes lost, source: Assomela). Clearly, the opening of new markets is vital.

One of the areas recognised as most attractive for Italian food exports (not just apples, then) is South East Asia, with countries such as Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia in the forefront. For the apple market, the focus is on China, which is the leading exporter in this area.

Apples in Thailand

There is no local production, except for a few isolated sites in the north of the country, which mainly exports its produce to Laos Cambodia and Burma: in Thailand, quality apples are imported. The apple has become part of the eating habits of the Thai, who appreciate its freshness and sour flavour perfectly compatible with their taste. It is an exotic fruit, sold at high prices, but consumed by all. Just think that in the canteen of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) there are two counters selling apples… The same situation in Taiwan and Vietnam, where apples (but also pears, cherries and grapes) are highly appreciated.

Now, doing a quick 2+2, one might ask: but… why don’t we recover the quotas lost in Africa by opening in SE Asia?

I asked myself this question and investigated. This is the result of the search ‘export apples Thailand’

Apples: the import barriers that are not there

Researching on the web, I found a very interesting report by Assomela, which shows that in Asia there are ‘Phytosanitary Barriers’ that hinder imports.

We therefore went to the Thai FDA (our usual place of work…) and asked if there were any particular restrictions on their part for exporting apples from Thailand.

No, there are not. The FDA simply requires notification/registration of the label and the usual clearance for each imported batch. We are told that before proceeding, however, we have to file with the Ministry of Agriculture for phytosanitary certification of the production sites (Pest Risk Assessment). Ah, there are the barriers, let’s hear from the Ministry….

Apple exports Thailand: the rules of the game

The Department of Agriculture (the operational branch of the Ministry) is happy to receive us and provide us with the entire procedure for opening the import of apples from Italy, which consists of:

Assessment of production sites for export
Obtaining a phytosanitary certificate for the sites in point 1.

Is that all, we ask? Yes, that’s all. They give us the application form (8 simple pages already translated into correct English, which is not common here) and tell us that the Italian Ministry responsible will have to apply. Until the sites are certified, the practice is managed between the two equivalent Ministries. After that, the companies producing the certified sites will have to go it alone, thus obtaining registration in Thai FDA and starting the usual commercial operations.

The question arises: excuse me, but does the Thai Ministry place any limits on imports? No, on the contrary, given the numerous requests from other countries (Brazil and Poland among those that have just completed the process) our commissions meet frequently. On the other hand, we notice a certain slowness on the other side….

Another doubt arises for me, which I verify thanks to the web. What is Sistema Italia doing to help its producers?

Italian apples in Asia

Phytosanitary certification underway between Italy and Vietnam: blocked due to the Ministry’s requests ‘not based on a scientific basis, based on a different protocol from that requested from France and Poland’ (Vietnam has very close relations with France, and Poland has a very aggressive foreign trade policy; that the EU then makes preferences between member countries is not something we discover today, Ed.)

Phytosanitary certification between Italy and Taiwan: they visited Italian sites last year but did not answer (this is Asia; sometimes you just have to ask, Ed)

Phytosanitary certification between Italy and China: negotiations have been open for 10 years, the Italian authorities are waiting for feedback from the Chinese ones. Let me remind you that China is Asia’s largest producer and has a 70% market share in Thailand. With the same price (detected by customs) at which the melons are sold

Conclusion: the apple market in Thailand

It is an open market, WITHOUT barriers but only with procedures to protect the environment and the consumer; without quotas, and without special constraints, with a favourable monetary situation (the Thai Baht is very strong against the Euro); on the other hand there are only duties, which favour countries that have signed Free Trade Agreements such as China, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.

France, Germany, Poland and the USA have no exemptions (they enjoy the same reduced duties as we do from the WTO), but they regularly import their products. We do not.

There are ongoing negotiations between ASEAN and the EU for free trade treaties which, if completed, would reward producers already within this market which, let us remember, counts 630 million consumers and has an annual growth rate of over 6%.

And meanwhile in Europe they “wet our noses”…

Often the problem of barriers, in the absence of geopolitical issues, lies in the interpretation of procedures in ministries. The usual cultural and communicative barrier that severely limits international business, and which we cannot continue to delegate to political figures or authorities engaged on a daily basis in tasks that are (according to them) far more important.

As a matter of fact, a crisis situation in a sector that dates back to 2013 (under the Letta government; the former prime minister is now one of the major promoters of himself and other former ones, such as Romano Prodi and Piero Fassino, towards ASEAN; too bad they realised it too late) was only addressed by the institutions at the end of 2018, with the opening of the certification procedure that began in December. Five years thrown away and now we are also chasing Brazil and Poland, in addition to the usual Germany and France.

I still remember the words of the Thai PRA Department official (in charge of issuing the phytosanitary certificate): ‘it’s the first time an Italian comes here, they usually go to the Ministry’. Here in Asia, answers do not come by themselves: they have to be solicited in the right places. If we think of expanding markets through civil servants and interns, we will continue to remain the tail end of exports to Asia.

Diego Sala
pre-market specialist in Kha Group Thailand

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