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EU suspends South Africa citrus fruit imports

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(BRUSSELS) - The European Commission on Thursday suspended imports of citrus fruits from South Africa -- which accounts for about a third the EU's total -- on concerns 'black spot' disease could infect local crops.

Citrus black spot is a fungal disease which lives up to its name and causes heavy losses but is not found in Europe.

Experts from the European Union's 28 member states agreed on the emergency ban after it was found in 36 citrus fruit cargos from South Africa this year, the Commission said in a statement.

Imports from South Africa were put at some 600,000 tonnes for 2013, about a third of the bloc's total citrus fruit purchases overseas. No value was given.

"The introduction of citrus black spot into the EU... would pose a serious threat to the EU's citrus producing areas," the statement said.

"For that reason, it is necessary to further restrict the import of citrus fruit from South Africa," it said, with allowed imports limited to those areas of the country certified as free of black spot.

The ban is more a warning measure, however, since it only applies to crops produced in the 2012-2013 season, which ends in a few weeks.

It "won't involve any fruit still to be exported to EU," according to South African industry research body Citrus Research International (CRI).

"It is a major concern for citrus producers. If it would be extended or repeated in 2014 then it would have a massive socio-economic impact on South African industry," CRI CEO Vaughan Hattingh told AFP.

South Africa exports around 70 percent of its citrus products, almost half of these to Europe.

The EU is a major producer in its own right of citrus fruits, especially in countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece.

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