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Ross Berries

'Blueberry battle serves as catalyst for industry reform'

'The South Africa fruit industry has been turned upside down as a result of the recent court battle involving Ross Berries and United Exports. Reforms are set to be on the cards that will see greater transparency in contracts involving licenced cultivars and marketing of fruit,' according to a statement from Ross Berries.

'The legal battle between the two companies has opened a can of worms as dubious practices to undermine farmers have come to light. Last week, the two containers of Ross Berries’ blueberries that were seized by Dutch Authorities at the Rotterdam Harbour at the request of United Exports nearly a month ago, were finally released and opened.'

The container of blueberries had no trace of any reference to United Exports’ OzBlu brands, as previously alleged by the company as the reason for the seizure. A quality control report filed by the International Fruit Quality Control Board now shows that the allegations by United Exports pertaining to the alleged trade mark and brand infringements by Ross Berries had no merit. The report clearly shows that the fruit in the container does not depict any reference to any variety or name, allegedly forming part of United Exports’ alleged proprietary rights.

Unfortunately, it appears from the quality control report that the seizure caused by United Exports did damage the quality of the fruit, which has consequential damages for Ross Berries and its exporter. A claim for damages will be filed against United Exports.

Chris Rossouw, director of Ross Berries, stated that the incident however raises serious questions surrounding the breach of standard practice for the seizure of perishable products and Dutch authorities’ commitment to abide by international law. “Such law states that seized perishable products cannot be held for longer than three days, after which it must be released while the investigation continues.

“This is worrying for the export industry and South African farmers who rely on the European market. Fighting such cases in a European court is expensive considering the exchange rate and is not a viable option of many farmers, which means many farmers’ hands are tied. An investigation into the matter will hopefully not only bring answers, but an end to any suspicious activity.”

Rossouw said that the question begs to be answered, why did United Exports prolong the release of the blueberry containers, notwithstanding the fact that Ross Berries made an irrevocable undertaking and that no trade mark and brand infringements were caused by the export of the berries. “Moreover, we committed to deposit an amount equalling the value of the shipment into a Dutch attorney’s trust account to be held as security until the matter was cleared up.

“We previously accused United Exports as having a malicious, scorched earth policy towards some growers, and one cannot ignore, considering the outcome of the evidence after the containers were opened, that this is indeed the case. The blueberries held back for over three weeks, instead of the three days required by law, can only speak to the suspicious modus operandi at the core of United Exports.

The question over the legality of the plant material has no merit. Furthermore, royalties were paid for the cultivars which United Exports did not have registered in South Africa, making them “open cultivars” and thus not eligible for royalties.

Rossouw notes that this is another issue which has come to light during the battle with United Exports. “There are serious discrepancies in the fruit industry when it comes to licenced cultivars, royalty fees, and marketing practices. We have had numerous farmers phone us in support of standing up to United Exports since they are in similar predicaments both with United Exports and other such companies which tie farmers down on the basis of plant breeders rights, when in fact no such rights are applicable.”

The case is turning out to be a catalyst for the whole industry to review their contracts and it is believed that the industry as a whole will be better off going forward. “Royalties for superior cultivars should by all means be charged and paid, but the correct procedures should be followed. This includes the marketing of the such fruit, which is where many farmers’ hands are currently tied. Class action law suits are being investigated by groups of farmers as a result.

“We have been vindicated on every level. This is a bitter-sweet victory because the whole incident had no basis to begin with. Furthermore the blueberry industry in South Africa has been tainted and exporters have been weary to take on our fruit. What is needed now is for the markets to reinstate their trust in South Africa’s blueberries and undertake exports without fears of unlawful practices and shipments being seized. Any highhanded practices in the industry must be rooted out, which will give farmers the confidence to continue investing in the fruit industry,” Rossouw concluded.

For more information:
Lindi Botha
Ross Berries
Tel: +27 824948005

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