January 5, 2006

EU to crack down on caviar smuggling

By Darren Ennis

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is to introduce new laws to combat the illegal trade in caviar in the coming months, the European Commission said on Thursday.

The announcement comes after Tuesday's decision by the United Nations to block caviar exports until producer countries around the Caspian and Black Seas give better information on stock levels and illegal sales of the highly prized delicacy.

The decision was taken by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) who believe the quota requests for 2006 might be too high in view of falling reserves of the sturgeon fish whose eggs are caviar.

"The EU hopes to put in place laws to establish registration systems and rules for the labeling of repackaged caviar in the next few months," EU agriculture spokesman Michael Mann said.

"We will convene a meeting in June at which we will hope to reach agreement on the proposal."

A universal labeling system for the trade in and identification of caviar was introduced within the remit of CITES, but governments in Western Europe have been slow to meet these requirements, environmental group WWF said on its website.

The issues to be discussed at the June meeting will include enforcement cooperation, legislation, caviar labeling and trade monitoring.

According to data reported by EU Member States and Switzerland almost 12 tonnes of illegal caviar was seized by European authorities between 2000 and 2005, with Germany top of the list.

Around 60 per cent of the caviar that is traded legally each year is imported by western European countries with the annual retail value of trade likely to be as high as several hundred million euros. Just 100g of the exclusive Beluga caviar costs as much as 600 euros ($725.6).

Officially, Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran and Kazakhstan shipped 105 tonnes of caviar on to the international market, but it is not known how much caviar was actually exported in 2005.

Industry officials say that the black market in caviar is about the same as the legal market at some 100 tonnes a year.

Caviar trading is a lucrative market with a retail value estimated at 2,000-6,000 euros ($2,400-$7,132) per kg (2.2 lb).

But environmentalists estimate that Caspian Sea stocks of sturgeon have plunged some 90 percent since the late 1970s due to overfishing and until official sturgeon export quotas have been published, no caviar or other sturgeon products produced from wild sources can be imported into the EU.