MANILA, OCTOBER 7, 2003  (STAR) By Rocel C. Felix  - The Australian government has prohibited the entry of food and non-food products coming from all ports of the Philippines except Manila because of the alleged presence of giant African snails (GAS) in container vans that reached Australiaís ports in recent months.

Already, Cebuís furniture exporters, are starting to feel the pinch with close to $6 million worth of products, including processed seaweeds, were barred from entering Australia because of the new import restrictions imposed by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).

AQIS recently included the Philippines in its list of "high-risk" GAS countries which require mandatory inspection before containers are released to prevent transporting the voracious snails which are considered as an agricultural pest.

Australian quarantine authorities have imposed more rigid inspection rules because of the reported presence of GAS in several container vans reaching its ports. However, the reports are unclear if all the infested containers came from the Philippines.

GAS can live up to six years. They feed on leaves, tubers, on many types of crops and ornamentals as well as organic matter, excreta and any organic refuse. They can become destructive to crops if left unchecked. The snail pest can be easily transported between countries. It attaches itself to containers, secondhand vehicles, used machinery, empty bottles and other materials which have been left lying on the ground for sometime. It is extremely difficult to eradicate this pest from an area once it has become established.

Cebu furniture exporters said they were never informed of this new development and became aware of it only when international shipping lines such as Maersk Sealand stopped accepting shipments to Australia from all Philippine ports such as General Santos, Davao, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Subic.

However, shipments coming from Manila are still being accepted because the cityís piers have complete fumigation facilities.

Cebuís exporters are initiating talks with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture to press Australia to reconsider its new import restrictions.

"It is not even confirmed that the snails found came from the Philippines. There must be an investigation so that its origin could be traced. It could be that the container vans from the Philippines were contaminated by other containers coming from other countries in the region," said one furniture exporter from Cebu.

Australia belongs to the top 10 markets of Cebuís thriving furniture exports industry.

Shemberg Marketing Corp. which exports processed seaweed or carrageenan to Australia, stands to lose about $5 million monthly if the ban continues.

The other countries listed as high-risk GAS countries are East Timor, Hawaiian Islands, Guam, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesian countries such as Tahiti, Moorea and Society Islands; the Federated States of Micronesia, New Caledonia and Vanuatu.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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