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SRA acting chief: Importation of 440,000 MT sugar is ‘above board’

Newly appointed Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) acting Administrator and CEO Pablo Luis Azcona maintained that the controversial importation of 440,000 metric tons (MT) of sugar underwent the proper procedures.

Azcona made the remark Friday, just a few hours after the Presidential Communications Office announced that he had been named by President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. acting administrator.   

“All that [SRA] did was above board and practically following the procedures,” Azcona told reporters in a Zoom interview. 

Azcona made the remark as Senator Risa Hontiveros continues to question the legality of the importation since it was not covered by previous sugar orders from the SRA.

“Hanggang ngayon, naninindigan ako, kasama ng industriya ng asukal: A Sugar Order (SO) is a requirement under the law,” Hontiveros said in a statement.

(I continue to stand by those in the sugar industry who believe that a Sugar Order is a requirement under the law.)

"An SRA sugar order is our very imperfect instrument for balancing the welfare of farmers, planters and millers on the one hand and of consumers and food manufacturers, on the other hand, who must also rely on imports to augment the limited supply," added Hontiveros.

In February, Hontiveros filed Senate Resolution 497 seeking a Blue Ribbon committee probe into the entries of around 440,000 metric tons of sugar in Philippine ports ahead of the issuance of Sugar Order No. 6.

She earlier said the February 9 shipments could not have been covered by Sugar Order 6, as the allocation for this would only start on February 24. It was also not covered by earlier orders, as the earliest arrival date would be on March 1.

Hontiveros said that Agriculture Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban, who represented Marcos in the Sugar Regulatory Administration Board, had a January 12 letter addressed to one of the alleged sugar importers of the questioned importation, saying the allocation was “per instruction of Executive Secretary [Lucas] Bersamin.”

Panganiban, however, said that he interpreted the memorandum issued by the Office of the Executive Secretary as an approval to proceed with the importation as he instructed “three capable and accredited companies to proceed with the importation of sugar provided that they agree to reduce the prices of sugar.”

The Department of Agriculture, on March 2, gave its go-signal for the release of the imported sugar that was flagged by Hontiveros as not covered by earlier sugar orders.

The go-ahead signal was issued by Panganiban “considering that allocations under Sugar Order No. 6, Series of 2022-2023 had been duly awarded, and considering further the Memorandum from the Office of the Executive Secretary dated January 13, 2023, and the Memorandum from the Office of the Senior Undersecretary of the Department Agriculture on even date.”

Azcona, however, said that the questioned importation had gone through a process as “we get stakeholders’ inquiries.”

“There was a process to get consultation and we received a lot of suggestions merong 350,000, 450,000 merong raw at refined sugar,” said Azcona.

“The figure was really narrowed down to 440,000… Everything was done properly, the schedules were done. We followed all the rules and we corrected all the issues brought about by the SO3 na all industrials and SO2 na 50-50 and come out with SO6,” he added

As to Hontiveros’ statement, Azcona said that the SRA has a team tasked to face the Senate’s probe.

“I will leave it to them kasi ayon ung expertise nila. Siguro in the future I can answer them pero sa ngayon po I was not privy as to what went on," explained Azcona.

(I will leave it to them because that's their expertise. Maybe in the future I can answer them. But for now, I am not privy to what went on.)  —VAL, GMA Integrated News