By Charlie Dunmore
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union banned most imports of South African citrus fruit on Thursday for the rest of this year over fears that a fungal disease found in dozens of shipments could spread to the 28-nation bloc.
The ban follows the interception of 36 citrus consignments this year from the EU's chief summer supplier that were contaminated with the fungal black spot disease, which is not currently found in Europe.
Earlier this month, Reuters reported that the executive European Commission was set to propose the ban following pressure from citrus growers in southern Europe.
EU citrus growers said on Thursday the measure was too late, noting the main export season is now over, but the Commission said the ban could be extended into next year if need be.
"The introduction of citrus black spot into EU territory would pose a serious threat to the EU's citrus-producing areas. For that reason, it is necessary to further restrict the import of citrus fruit from South Africa," the Commission said.
The ban applies to all South African citrus shipments from regions where the disease is present, which covers the bulk of the country's production.
Initially the ban will apply only to the 2012-2013 harvest, which ended in October. It will therefore have little immediate impact because exports to Europe dry up around October anyway.
"It is laughable that the EU closes the border to South African citrus exports when the export season is over," Spanish citrus growers' association Asaja said in a statement.
THREAT TO 2014 EXPORTS
But EU officials have warned that the restrictions could be extended into next year if an ongoing study by the bloc's food safety watchdog finds that the disease could take hold in Europe's estimated 500,000 hectares of citrus groves.
That would threaten South Africa's 600,000 tonnes of citrus exports to Europe each year - mainly oranges, lemons, limes and tangerines - worth some 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion).
"The measures adopted ... today will create huge uncertainty in the trade, which will adversely affect the 2014 season before it even starts," Rocco Renaldi, a Brussels-based representative for the South African Citrus Growers' Association, told Reuters.
South Africa supplies about a third of the EU's total citrus imports and is the main source of oranges for the juice drunk by consumers in Britain, Germany and France during Europe's summer.
The ban comes at a sensitive time as the EU is seeking South Africa's support to unlock stalled trade deals with sub-Saharan Africa.
While harmless to humans, citrus black spot causes unsightly lesions on the fruit and leaves, reducing both harvest quality and quantity. There is no known cure, but fungicides can be used to control the spread of the disease.
It is found in many citrus-growing regions in the southern hemisphere as well as in China and the United States but has never established itself in Europe.
In a draft scientific opinion published in July, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said the chance of citrus black spot taking in hold in Europe was "moderately likely".
But it said there was a high level of uncertainty due to a lack of knowledge of how the disease would respond to Europe's climate. The EFSA assessment is due by the end of this year.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Gareth Jones)