Wheat shipments to Egypt, the world’s largest buyer, are being disrupted by a dispute involving government inspectors angered by a ban on the expenses-paid foreign trips they once enjoyed to approve cargoes at their ports of origin.
Those trips, funded by exporters, have been canceled as part of Egypt’s efforts to streamline imports worth more than $1 billion a year. Traders say the new system has backfired as inspectors are now rejecting cargoes at Egyptian ports on arbitrary and unpredictable grounds.
There is more to the problem than erratic policies and red tape, according to interviews with grains traders, agriculture quarantine inspectors, government officials, and a review of inspection documents.
According to these sources, difficulties for importers are rather the result of a tug-of-war over the right to inspect cargoes abroad, where until recently government quarantine inspectors enjoyed fully-funded trips, dinners and shopping at the expense of supply companies looking to secure safe passage for their wheat.
By applying higher standards to grains upon arrival, inspectors are driving up costs in a bid to undermine inspection companies that replaced them abroad, traders said.
Six inspectors who Reuters spoke to denied they are trying to get their foreign trips reinstated and said they are simply upholding quality standards.
Suppliers say uncertainty is prompting them to add premiums of up to $500,000 per cargo to hedge against risks. With Egypt expecting to buy around 7 million tonnes of wheat in the fiscal year that began in July, these premiums add millions of dollars to the government’s food subsidy bill.
The bread supply chain has ground to a halt on several occasions as traders have boycotted tenders. Subsidized bread is a staple for millions of poor Egyptians and the country’s leaders are always keen to keep supplies flowing for fear of unrest.
Wheat traders say the only way out of the problem is for the government bodies involved to sit down and thrash out standards all sides can agree on.
‘A BREAKFAST PROBLEM’
Getting cargoes passed under the old system often came down to keeping government inspectors comfortable, traders said.
When a $6 million wheat cargo at a port in Ukraine suddenly stopped loading two years ago, its agent found Egyptian inspectors had halted the process because their hotel would not give them a late breakfast, traders said. The delay cost the supply company $8,000 in port fees.
“As soon as we arranged for the hotel to give them a later breakfast, everything went smoothly and the shipment was passed. It wasn’t a wheat problem. It was a breakfast problem,” said a Cairo-based trader responsible for the cargo who asked to remain anonymous.
Six other traders described the system in similar terms, saying shopping for electronics and clothes, expensive dinners, and hotel room upgrades were the cost of keeping their grains moving out of ports from Odessa to Dunkirk.
One trader said the money paid to inspectors could equal their annual salary.
“You’re talking about four to five people, and you have to take care of them from A to Z, meaning you are taking them shopping and you are paying,” said Med Star for Trading President Hesham Soliman.
Soliman said the delegations grew more expensive. “They began needing more pocket money, the hotels have to be certain hotels, the tickets, the visa,” he said.
Traders said they would spend about $30,000 on the inspectors, which also typically included a $3,500 pocket money payment per person, according to invoices seen by Reuters.
Agricultural quarantine inspectors who Reuters spoke to on condition of anonymity have quoted the same figures for the trips but say the old system was still cheaper for Egypt.
“I can’t deny that I benefited, but the country benefited more. Look how much they’re spending now,” one inspector said, referring to the high risk premiums traders now put on cargoes offered to Egypt.