No pork import ‘tongpats,’ syndicate, says agri chief
MANILA, Philippines — The top official of the Department of Agriculture (DA) has denied allegations that a syndicate within the agency was getting kickbacks for every kilo of pork that enters the country.
“On the alleged ‘tongpats’ of about P5 to P7 per kilo of imported pork, the present DA leadership categorically denies any involvement if such scheme indeed exists,” Agriculture Secretary William Dar said in a statement on Wednesday.
“On my personal and official capacity as secretary of the DA, the undersigned is one with President Rodrigo Duterte in the strict observance of good governance and no corruption in government, and will never allow any corrupt practice under his stead and leadership,” he added.
Citing insider information, Sen. Panfilo Lacson claimed on Monday that a syndicate at the DA was collecting between P5 to P7 a kilo from imported meat and could earn as much as P6 billion a year from the proposal to increase pork import volumes by 350,000 metric tons (MT).
Despite opposition from lawmakers and agricultural groups, the DA was able to convince President Duterte to sign Executive Order (EO) No. 128, which raised the minimum access volume (MAV) for hog meat imports from 54,000 to 404,000 MT and slashed tariffs on imported pork from a high of 40 to just 5 percent.
Dar had said both measures were needed to lower consumer meat prices and address the shortage of pork due to the African swine fever (ASF) outbreak. Critics, however, pointed out that these would spell the death of the local hog industry.
Consistent raffle winners
Lacson, meanwhile, said he would continue to dig deeper into the allegations of a “tongpats” scheme inside the DA when the Senate, sitting as a committee of the whole, resumes its investigation today.
“One thing suspicious is that the DA claims that the allocation of the MAV is distributed among importers through a raffle. So why is it then that only four importers keep winning the raffles yearly?” he asked.
When favoritism hounds the allocation of the MAV quota, it is just logical to conclude that bribery has crept into the importation of meat products, not only of pork, but also of fish, poultry and even vegetables, according to the senator.
“When Secretary Dar denied that corruption is happening instead of ordering an investigation, it is either he is being taken for a ride, or he is benefiting from it, or he just does not want to ruffle feathers in the department,” he said.
“Or it could be pressure from outside the DA,” Lacson added, without elaborating.
Jocelyn Salvador, head of the MAV Secretariat, has yet to respond to requests for clarification about the transparency of the raffle system for the MAV allocation. It was also unclear whether the additional allocation would be given to existing MAV holders or not.
EO termination pushed
At the House of Representatives, 17 congressmen have crossed party lines and filed House Joint Resolution No. 37 urging Mr. Duterte to terminate EO 128.
They were Bayan Muna Representatives Carlos Zarate, Ferdinand Gaite and Eufemia Cullamat, Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro, Kabataan Rep. Sarah Elago, Quezon City Rep. Christopher Belmonte, Pangasinan Rep. Rose Marie Arenas, Magsasaka Rep. Argel Joseph Cabatbat, Iloilo Rep. Lorenz Defensor, Caloocan Rep. Edgar Erice, Bukidnon Rep. Jonathan Keith Flores, Agap Rep. Rico Geron, Iloilo Rep. Janette Garin, Bataan Rep. Geraldine Roman, Tarlac Rep. Noel Villanueva and Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman.
According to them, the government would lose P14 billion in revenues due to the reduced pork import tariffs while the increase in the MAV of imported pork would further decimate the local hog industry and undermine the country’s local production and food security the same way the rice industry suffered under the rice tariffication law.
“The impending production stoppage of many producers who cannot cope with the negative effects of the reduced tariff and MAV expansion will mean more loss of jobs and livelihood, not only for the owners, but also for the entire workforce of the industry,” the lawmakers said.
“EO 128 will create irreparable damage to the pork industry and to the agriculture sector as a whole,” they added as they pushed for Mr. Duterte’s order to be “withdrawn and terminated immediately.
The other day, Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said that he, along with Senators Cynthia Villar and Francis Pangilinan, would file a joint resolution of Congress seeking to revoke EO 128 next week.
The senators seek to invoke provisions of Republic Act No. 10863 or the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, which allows Congress to withdraw or revoke an executive directive modifying tariff duties through a joint resolution.
“In addition to Senators Villar and Pangilinan, I will solicit the support of [Senate President Vicente] Sotto, Senators [Ralph] Recto, [Juan Miguel] Zubiri and all the other senators who wish to coauthor the joint resolution, to make it a bipartisan measure and assure its passage,” Drilon said on Wednesday in a Viber message to Senate reporters.
Recto, who agreed to be coauthor of the resolution, hoped that the President would yield to their appeal.
“We should support our local hog industry. Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos depend on it, including family members. The multiplier effect on the economy is much greater than just importing hogs,” he said.
Meat importation has also become a health and security issue, Recto pointed out, with the country still lacking the capability to test meat products for diseases.
In a statement, Rep. Stella Quimbo, who had said that the President’s issuance of the executive order was “premature,” pointed out that “reducing tariffs alone [might] not work” without other government interventions.
While authorities could temporarily import pork to stabilize prices, it should also provide cash assistance to help local raisers “repopulate their hogs and to support investments needed so they [could] better compete with imported pork.”
According to her, competition is key in making reduced tariffs propeople.
“If government is allowed to import pork at the new reduced tariffs and sell directly to the consumers, then importers will now face competition. This is one way to ensure that reduced tariffs will translate to lower prices in the markets,” she said.
House Deputy Speaker Eddie Villanueva also threw his support behind his colleagues’ call for the President to terminate his order.
“The lowering of pork import tariffs [during a] pandemic and when our local hog industry is in ‘critical’ if not dying condition due to ASF is not only shocking but at the same time also unbelievable,” he said in a statement.
Allowing more pork imports to flood the market would “surely kill” the livelihood of Filipino hog raisers, Villanueva added. —With reports from Nestor Corrales and Melvin Gascon
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