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International Waters: Tobacco Whitefly Under the Spotlight

Posted: May 20, 2014, 9:15 a.m. EDT

By John Dawes
There is a saying that goes more or less like this: "If an organism doesn’t carry any parasites, it’s dead!” This is perfectly true, because parasites, by their very nature, live on or inside other living organisms. Those organisms that obtain their nutritional and other requirements from dead or rotting bodies are known as saprotrophs, not parasites.
Within the ornamental aquatic industry, one of the parasites that has been creating headlines for many years now is the tobacco whitefly (Bemisia tabaci), also known as the silverleaf or sweet potato whitefly. This small insect causes damage in two ways: physically, through its feeding behavior, and virally, through transmission of viruses (more than 110 virus species can be spread by B. tabaci).
 Tobacco Whitefly
Bemisia tabaci, the tobacco whitefly, can infest a wide range of plants, including aquatic species popular in home aquaria and ponds. Stephen Erasmus/U.S. Department of Agriculture
The whitefly can contaminate a wide range of plants, including many aquatic ones used in home aquaria and ponds. One of the main exporting countries of such plants is Malaysia, yet according to a recently published report from the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) of the European Commission Health and Consumer Directorate-General, Malaysia doesn’t have a monitoring program in place for B. tabaci.
Despite this, the area dedicated to aquatic plant production within Malaysia doubled between 2010 and 2012, rising from 10 hectares to 20. Equally, the number of aquatic plants exported also doubled during this period, from 8,321,000 to 16,643,000 plants/stems. Of these, those destined for the European Union (EU) rose from 3,620,000 plants/stems in 2010 to 7,154,000 in 2012. Not all of these arrive in Europe direct from Malaysia; in many instances, they arrive via Singapore.
In view of the risks posed by B. tabaci, an FVO audit visited Malaysia Oct. 8-17, 2013, "to evaluate the system of official controls for the export of plants regulated by Council Directive 2000/29/EC.” There also had been growing concern because of the rapid rise in the number of interceptions by EU Member States of contaminated consignments from Malaysia. These had soared from 22 in 2012 to 75 in 2011 to 103 in 2012 and to 93 January through September 2013. It must be stressed that only a fraction of these consisted of aquatic plants. 
During their time in Malaysia, the members of the audit visited the central and regional offices of the Malaysian Competent Authority (CA), as well as its central laboratory in the most important plant-producing area, Johor Bahru, just across the Causeway from Singapore. They also visited four production sites, two exporters’ associations, a treatment facility and packing houses.
The following aspects of plant production, health monitoring and export were reviewed:
• Organizational aspects of plant health controls;
• Export procedures;
• Phytosanitary certificates;
• Action taken in response to internal interceptions and notification of interceptions from the EU; and
• Wood packaging material and ISPH 15 certification (not applicable to the aquatics sector).
In its overall conclusions, the audit team stated that "There is a clear structure and division of responsibilities within the NPPO (National Plant Protection Organization) and good communication with producers and exporters. However, staff are not well-trained and are generally unaware of the harmful organisms of concern to the EU or of EU import requirements.” It also found shortcomings in the implementation of official checks relating to sampling and inspection techniques. Further, and despite certain action having been taken by the NPPO in response to the continued interceptions in the EU, effective action had not been taken to improve the system of export controls.
Overall, the FVO audit found that "the system of export controls for plant health in Malaysia does not provide adequate assurance that EU requirements are complied with, and if the system is not improved significantly, the risk of introduction of harmful organisms into the EU with plants and plant products from Malaysia will remain high.”
For More Information
Access the Council Directive that deals with protective measures against the introduction into the community of organisms harmful to plants or plant products: 
Twelve recommendations made with regard to the shortcomings were presented to the CA at a closing meeting held on Oct. 17, 2013, at the Department of Agriculture in Putrajaya. On Jan. 17, 2014, the Malaysian CA responded officially to the recommendations.
Action is already being taken by the Malaysian authorities to address each of the recommendations. By press time, some of these changes and improvements already will have been put into operation, e.g., meetings will have been held to assess and review export certification procedures, and all aquatic plant export facilities will have been registered with the Department of Agriculture. Others will follow over subsequent months. It is expected that Standard Operating Procedures for export inspection and phytosanitary certification will have been improved and implemented by December 2014, and by early 2015 meetings will have been held with stakeholders "to discuss the action plans for exports of aquatic plants to the EU.”
So, all in all, the Malaysian CA expects to have addressed and implemented every recommendation made by the FVO by early next year. No doubt, all the measures taken will be assessed by the FVO in due course in the hope that the threats to EU flora and fauna have been tackled and that the measures taken comply with Council Directive 2000/29/EC, which deals with "protective measures against the introduction into the Community of organisms harmful to plants or plant products and against their spread within the Community.”


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