The European Union-Africa Caribbean Pacific (EU/ACP) project, initiated in March 2015, by the Vanuatu Embassy in Brussels aims at producing a definition of regional quality standards for kava as a beverage is now approaching completion with the final touches on the study by the experts, Ambassador Roy Mickey Joy is convinced that the project has a good chance of success.

The project was a consequence of the decisions taken at the High Level Conference on Kava in Vanuatu in March 2012, where it was clearly shown that the de facto ban of kava in the European Union could only be overcome with an appropriate definition of kava quality.

There is still a wide variety of materials (essentially, ‘two-day’ kava cultivars and kava peelings) that are sold as ‘kava’ on the international markets, while they are materials that should not be traded and that are endangering the reputation of kava as a safe and beneficial commodity.

The lack of an adequate quality standard was especially visible when two German court decisions overturned the prohibition of kava-containing medicinal products in Germany. Whereas safety and efficacy of such medications should no longer be an issue in the debate, concerns about quality can still delay progress indefinitely. The German health authorities now recognise that there may be a relation between the sudden occurrence of case reports of liver toxicity during 1999 and 2000 and the quality of the ‘kava’ material used in the manufacture of the extract products. “Evidence shows that some products marketed as kava cannot be considered as such in light of the traditional experience. Accordingly, the decision to accelerate the ongoing definition of quality standards by kava-producing countries could not have come at a better time”, the Ambassador said.

German scientist Dr. Mathias Schmidt and trade lawyer Paolo R. Vergano of the Brussels-based law firm FratiniVergano, who are both experienced veterans in the fight for rehabilitation of kava, were given the tasks of sampling as many export-relevant kava varieties in the kava-producing countries of Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Solomon Islands, enhancing awareness of the current situation through stakeholder meetings, and drafting a FAO Codex standard for proposal within the Pacific region.

Hawaii was also included in the research programme as the one non-Melanesian/Polynesian origin of kava traded on the international markets. In fact, work on kava quality standards for submission to FAO Codex already began after the 2012 kava conference by the kava working group in the producing countries, but with the upcoming 2016 FAO Codex Coordination Committee North America South West Pacific (CCNASWP) meeting, efforts must be further accelerated.

Dr. Schmidt started his field mission in April 2015, and was able to fully cover the relevant kava varieties in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and the Solomon Islands, as well as a high percentage of Hawaii and a well-representative portion of the varieties in Vanuatu.

The fact that identification and collection, as well as the stakeholder meetings, went exceedingly well, despite of the severe time restrictions, was mainly the result of Dr. Schmidt’s powerful web of contacts in the Pacific and among local stakeholders, especially governmental bodies, the kava working group, PHAMA and the exporters associations. Nonetheless, the task still proved very challenging, not only because of the logistics of covering six countries within a mere five weeks, but also because of the complexities of transporting the samples to the laboratories involved in the programme.

The consequences of tropical cyclone PAM were burdensome, as were the following tropical storms and the unexpected and unexplainable seizure and destruction of a batch of kava samples by French customs authorities, which lead to a complete loss of sample shipments, in particular from Vanuatu. Despite these setbacks, the all relevant kava samples have finally been gathered in the EU for scientific assessment.

The definition of a regional standard for ‘noble’ kava requires methods for the analytical distinction between ‘noble’ and ‘two-day’ kava. Methods for qualitative approaches were developed by Dr. Vincent Lebot and the kava working group in Vanuatu. Dr. Schmidt’s approach is an orientation at typical Codex Alimentarius and pharmacopoeial quality definitions, which also involve the quantitative measurement of quality parameters by a validated analytical procedure. Such a method was identified and successfully validated, and with approximately 80% of samples now measured and assessed, Dr. Schmidt is confident that a simple and reliable differentiation of ‘noble’ and ‘two-day’ kava will be achieved.

The next steps will be the presentation of the data to the FAO Codex CCNASWP for implementation of the new standard in the Codex Alimentarius after reaching an agreement among Pacific kava-producing countries including Vanuatu, which is renowned for its production and economic reliance on kava. FratiniVergano hopes that such a consensus can, in fact, be reached and, most importantly, actively and efficiently enforced by Pacific Countries in order to ensure exportation of quality kava only.

The implementation of a standard would contribute to the protection of the economy of the kava-producing countries and provide additional value to ‘noble’ kava as an export commodity. With Vanuatu being the only nation still growing and exporting ‘two-day’ kava materials to a considerable extent, the international reputation of kava from Vanuatu should specifically profit from adhering to strict quality standards.

In parallel, the issue of agricultural standards will also have to be addressed as soon as possible. Not only have the FAO/WHO’s rules for Good Agricultural and Collection Practice (GACP) evolved into international requirements on the importers side, but such standards are also basic preconditions in light of the applicable WTO rules for challenging scientifically unjustified and legally questionable measures of other WTO Members that are restricting or prohibiting kava trade.

In the meantime, the Embassy of Vanuatu in Brussels on behalf of the Government and the Pacific ACP Kava producing countries has just submitted another request to the ACP/EU TBT Programme Management Unit (PMU)with the objective of convening a High Level meeting to consider and validate the outcome of the kava study and make recommendations on the future Pacific Islands kava product as a new commodity item within the new ACP Commodity Programme, but also to allow Pacific Islands stakeholders to discuss a New Strategy and equally an Action Plan for kava in terms of market access and viability within and into international marketing environment.

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