SHARP EDGES: Time to arrest profiteers, Mr. President
President Duterte promised to perfect “the food chain” in the country by 2019. But sadly, this cannot happen. I believe his strong political will has not been directed at “untouchable middlemen,” smugglers, cartels and “price manipulators” for the past two years. These very rich people, mostly Chinese-Filipinos, have been in control of basic goods for many years even if these are heavily regulated by the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
I talked to Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez who was exasperated over the inability of “biyaheros” and middlemen to drop their prices, consistent with the lowering of farm-gate prices.
Presently, local chicken production is high and last week, Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol removed the “special safeguard” duty on imported chicken and chicken products.
As a result, farm-gate prices of local chicken dropped from 95 per kilo to P77 per kilo.
Technically, an additional P50 is added to cover the processing and transport costs of middlemen before the chicken gets to the wet market in Metro Manila. Thus, a reasonable price would be P127 per kilo but our dzIQ reporter, Ricky Brozas, saw chickens in Paco public market selling at P150 per kilo, or an overprice of P23 per kilo. How can this happen? Are market forces at work or is it the insatiable greed of food distribution cartels?
Lopez was angry and he said the DTI would start issuing “letters of inquiry,” then a notice of violation, followed by the closure of a store and the confiscation of products as a last resort. He would activate local price coordinating councils and even ask the police to go after these unscrupulous businessmen.
Sadly though, their greed is also evident not just in chicken but other basic food items as well.
In fact, the July 2018 statistics of the Philippine Statistics Authority showed an inflation rate of 5.7 percent (fastest in five years from 5.2 percent in June), with “food inflation” of vegetables doubling from 8.6 percent to a staggering 16 percent in just 30 days. Prices of “siling labuyo” have zoomed up to P600 per kilo, while that of vegetables and fish went up by P50 to P100 per kilo.
This leads us now to the big question. Is the Duterte administration, the DTI and DA included, still on top of our food situation? After more than two years, what happened to the promised postharvest facilities so that middlemen and profiteers would be sidelined and farm goods would end up directly in the market? Do we now have government slaughterhouses with blast-freezing and packing facilities? Are there working canning and processing centers for the produce of farmers and fishermen? It is clear that Piñol who has been in office for two years should answer these questions.
But the biggest challenge really is the food distribution network dominated by “profiteering middlemen and biyaheros” in cahoots with smugglers. They are insensitive to public suffering and will not lower chicken prices even if farm-gate prices drop.
These unscrupulous people are now directly challenging the “balanced food chain” promise of Mr. Duterte. They are economic saboteurs who use his Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion law as a cover for profiteering. Why can’t he order their immediate arrest and criminal prosecution?
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