SEN. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson sought a probe on an alleged syndicate in the Department of Agriculture (DA) that stands to gain billions of pesos in “tong-pats” (padded costs) from the proposed lower tariff rates on imported pork products.
The senator said the syndicate would benefit from the DA’s plan to lower tariff rates on imported pork products and to increase the minimum access volume (MAV) of pork importation to address the impact of African swine fever (ASF) on the hog industry.
Lacson pointed out that if the tariff for importations would be brought down and the MAV would be increased, the syndicate could jack up its “tong-pats” from the current P5-7 to P10-15 per kilo — easily earning P4 billion to P6 billion from the 400,000 metric tons (MT) or 400 million kilograms.
He is set to file a resolution to seek the convening of a Committee of the Whole to conduct the investigation.
Senate President Vicente Sotto 3rd and Sen. Francis Pangilinan supported Lacson’s call for a thorough inquiry into the matter.
In a text message, Sotto said Agriculture Secretary William Dar “has no business of being DA secretary if he is not aware [of such alleged irregularity].”
According to Lacson, the alleged anomaly amounts “to a triple whammy that threatens to kill our local hog industry while raising health concerns and costing the government forgone revenues.”
“We should unmask who is/are behind this scheme no matter how powerful and influential he may be with this administration,” he said on Tuesday in a statement.
“I want to see even a whiff of enthusiasm from the President to order the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission and other concerned agencies to investigate, not to mention heed the call of the Senate to disapprove the DA’s recommendation to reduce the tariff and increase the volume of pork importation. Let’s see,” Lacson added.
He said he received “disturbing information from a highly placed source who has knowledge of the modus operandi within the agency that at current rates of 30-percent tariff on in-quota hog importation and 40 percent for off-quota importation, mayroong umiiral na kalakaran na (there is) tong-pats or ‘SOP’ (standard operating procedure) of P5 to P7 per kilo.”
Lacson cited a letter from the Agricultural Sector Alliance of the Philippines (AGAP) party-list to Sotto on behalf of 80,000 backyard hog raisers, expressing concern that the DA’s proposed increase in pork meat importation by expanding the MAV while imposing a reduced tariff may kill the local industry.
In the letter signed by its president Nicanor Briones, AGAP said that while it is not against importation, 400,000 MT is too much and may cause an oversupply nationwide, while cutting tariff rates may cost the government some P13.95 billion in revenues, and thus “unnecessary and unacceptable.”
The senators voiced concern over the DA’s recommendation to Duterte to increase the MAV from 54,000 MT to 404,000 MT to address increasing prices of pork and an estimated supply deficit of 388,491 MT.
The DA also sought to lower the quota tariff rate by as much as 83 percent, from 30 percent to 5 percent if within quota; and from 40 percent to 15 percent if beyond the quota.
“We are dealing with public money and possibly foregone revenues. Where is the conscience of these people, who, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, were still taking advantage of the African swine fever?” Lacson said.
“So far, we have received documents from the Bureau of Customs and DA. Still, we need more data to get to the bottom of the anomaly,” he added in a radio interview.
Lacson said Dar “should know or at least has heard of the shenanigans within his department,” particularly in the MAV Management Committee, headed by Acting Undersecretary William Medrano and composed of the Bureau of Animal Industry and the National Meat Inspection Service, along with the “SOPs” in the allocation of quota to favored importers and the issuance of the Phyto-Sanitary Import Clearance.
“This practice has been going on for several years now. For example, between June and October 2018, imported pork from banned countries due to the ASF like Belgium, Hungary, Germany and China flooded the local market which prompted the issuance of a memorandum order by then DA Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, he recalled.
Lacson noted that some poultry integrators composed of major producers and suppliers of poultry have appealed to Dar “to calibrate” the importation of finished chicken products and stay within the MAV limit of 23.4 million kilos per year.
They asked the DA to disallow the continued importation of chicken finished products
especially “with diseases that have mostly come from abroad.”
Amid the country’s pork shortage, Malacañang said that President Rodrigo Duterte still trusts his Agriculture secretary.
Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. made the statement after pork producer groups called on Dar to resign for allegedly favoring importers and smugglers over local traders of pork.
“May tiwala pa rin po ang ating Presidente kay Secretary Dar (The President still trusts Secretary Dar),” Roque said.
“Sa lahat po ng mga members ng Cabinet, we continue to work or remain in our duties for as long as the President has full trust and confidence in us (We, members of the Cabinet, continue to work or remain in our duties for as long as the President has full trust and confidence in us).”
Meanwhile, Roque said Malacañang welcomed the call of senators for the President to declare a state of emergency over the ASF outbreak, a factor that contributed to the increase in prices of pork.
Roque said the DA is drafting its proposal to Malacañang for the declaration of state of emergency.
Also included in the recommendation of the DA is a provision that will give the agency the authority to realign its budget for ASF concerns, according to the spokesman.
A state of emergency would allow the government to allocate more funds for additional measures to address the outbreak and provide more support to the hog industry.
Last February, Duterte ordered the imposition of a 60-day price freeze in the prices of pork and chicken in Metro Manila after the public decried the high prices of these meat products.
Executive Order 124 sets a price cap of P270 per kilogram for kasim and pigue, P300 per kilogram for liempo and P160 per kilogram for dressed chicken.
WITH A REPORT FROM KEITH CALAYAG