Egypt cancels zero-ergot wheat policy amid mounting pressure

Sunset in Egypt on the Nile River south of Luxor. (CIA.gov)

Cairo | Reuters — Egypt has reversed its controversial zero-tolerance policy on the common grains fungus ergot, the government said on Wednesday, backtracking on an import regulation that had all but blocked its access to global wheat.

Egypt, the world’s largest buyer of wheat, has seen its imports grind to a halt since it imposed a ban on ergot last month, with three successive state tenders cancelled on the back of mass boycotts by suppliers who say the condition is impossible to guarantee.

Ergot can cause hallucinations when consumed in large amounts but is considered harmless in low quantities. The toxic alkaloids it produces can also be harmful to livestock consuming ergot-contaminated grain or grasses.

The government said it is reinstating a 0.05 per cent tolerance level for ergot, a common international standard it had used before the ban, and applying it to both outstanding and future wheat contracts.

The decision to apply last month’s ban retroactively to outstanding contracts had led to the suspension of 540,000 tonnes of wheat en route to Egypt, the statement said.

Egypt runs a massive food subsidy program that provides bread for tens of millions of its poorest citizens and which may have come under threat had it not eased its import restriction.

“Egypt had no real choice but to cancel the zero ergot policy if they want to feed their people with large-scale wheat imports. It has been said so many times during this affair that no country anywhere in the world can provide wheat with zero ergot in bulk volumes,” one European trader said.

As part of the rule reversal, the government will contract an international firm to conduct ergot inspections on wheat shipments, the statement said.

Reporting for Reuters by Ahmed Aboulenein; additional reporting by Michael Hogan in Hamburg; writing by Eric Knecht.

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