Published on Sunday, December 1, 2002 by The Sunday Herald (Scotland)
Opposition Exposes Lucrative Radioactive Wheat Export Scam
Romanian officials claim ignorance of cheap Chernobyl-contaminated produce labeled safe and sold to the Middle East
by Gabriel Ronay
Radioactive wheat grown in Ukrainian fields poisoned by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are being repackaged as 'Romanian-grown grain' and exported by Bucharest merchants to Arab countries in a lucrative multimillion pound scam.
Radioactive fall-out from the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe in the now defunct Soviet Union on April 26, 1986, contaminated wide swathes of Europe and caused serious damage to crops and livestock as far west as the Scottish Highlands and Islands. For years afterwards, hill farmers could not sell their lambs and milk from cows that had fed on tainted grass.
It is still casting a deadly shadow over the Ukraine, the former breadbasket of the region. The radioactive contamination of the soil, one of the long-lasting effects of the explosion of the fourth reactor, is crippling independent Ukraine .
Because of evident contamination of Ukrainian wheat, and also of wheat and cereals grown in the neighboring Republic of Moldova, Arab countries of the near and Middle East have now banned the import of grain from the two countries for fear of radioactive contamination of their people. Enter the new venture capitalists of Romania eager to make a quick buck.
Valeriu Gheorghe, a Romanian opposition Liberal Party deputy, last week unmasked the profiteers in parliament, pointing a finger not only at Romania's Mammon worshippers, who allegedly buy up the condemned wheat of the Ukraine and Moldova, but also at certain government officials.
He also revealed the modus operendi of the scam. He told parliament: 'Romania is a prime importer of Ukrainian and Moldovan grain and the two countries also use Romania for the transit of their wheat shipments to their traditional Arab markets. In the course of the transit, Ukrainian and Moldovan wheat gets relabeled 'Romanian wheat' and is then exported to foreign markets.
In other words, radioactive wheat bought at bargain prices is being sold at full market price by Romanian entrepreneurs to unsuspecting foreign consumers as Bucharest officials avert their eyes.
Although the public-spirited deputy did not touch on the moral dimensions of the trade in condemned wheat, he posed the question: 'Is there now, because of it, any possibility that consumers are eating radioactive bread?' And he justified his question by quoting from a formal statement issued by the Association of Romanian Cereal Wholesalers confirming that: 'In the financial years 2001 and 2002, Romania imported considerable quantities of radioactive wheat from the Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova.'
Whether out of concern for the health of consumers, Arab or Romanian, or for fear of the collapse of the credibility of Romanian-grown wheat on the world markets, the deputy demanded to know from the agriculture minister what action, if any, he has taken to stop the illegal commerce in Ukrainian and Moldovan cereals and whether, in view of the Arab ban, any checks on radioactivity have been put in place at Romania's frontier entry points?
In his reply, agriculture minister llie Sarbu tried to cover up the issue by denying that any Ukrainian wheat purchases have been authorized by his ministry. But he admitted that up to October 27 of this year, Romania had imported 19,079 tonnes of wheat from Moldova and reeled off a raft of other import statistics to support his whiter-than-white position. Minister Sarbu's reply would have been a triumph in obfuscation even in the days of Romania's Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Unfortunately for him, Ion Scurteli, the chairman of the Association of Romanian Cereal Wholesalers' reinforced deputy Veleriu Gheorghe's revelations and gave the lie to the agriculture minister's statement. In an interview with the Bucharest daily Ziua, he demolished Sarbu's plea of official ignorance of this nefarious trade: 'In the past two years, certain Arab countries have recorded that wheat imports from the Black Sea basin were radioactive. In this period, the Romanian agriculture ministry received a series of requests from Arab countries for wheat exports, with one of the key conditions being the exclusion of radioactive grain.
'The association has received letters from Arab countries specifying the quality of cereals, especially of wheat. Wheat from the Ukraine and Moldova is expressly banned from the Arab markets because of fear of radioactive contamination. These exclusions were also spelled out in official letters to the Romanian ministry of agriculture, the ministry of foreign affairs and the local Romanian embassies.'
Scurteli added that in spite of these formal requests, no Geiger-counter checks have been used on wheat imports from the Ukraine and Moldova at Romania's frontiers. 'We cannot stop the import of wheat from the Ukraine,' he admitted. 'But at least we could protect ourselves with proper checks against the import of radioactive cereals. This way, we could protect the health of our people and defend the good reputation of our wheat abroad.' In view of the shocking revelations of Gheorghe and the candid statement of the chief of the Romanian Cereal Wholesalers' Association official Bucharest's plea of ignorance of the commerce in radioactive wheat is untenable.
But Romanian officials are not alone in putting profit before the health of consumers. The bankrupt regime of President Kuchma of the Ukraine must have sold its contaminated wheat in underhand deals knowing full well it was not fit for human consumption.
©2002 smg sunday newspapers ltd