Two House lawmakers on Thursday said price manipulation and the hoarding of supplies being blamed on an "onion cartel" will not prosper without help from the government, particularly the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).
House agriculture and food panel chairperson Mark Enverga of Quezon and House appropriations panel senior vice chairperson Stella Quimbo of Marikina made the conclusion after nine days of hearings on the spike in onion prices during the last quarter of 2022, which reached as much as P700 per kilo.
Quimbo maintained that a company called PhilVieva, owned by Leah Cruz and her relatives, is linked to the illegal activities. According to the lawmaker, public records state that its owners also own companies that do business with PhilVieva, which allegedly cornered the lion's share of onion imports last year.
Cruz, during the hearings, denied involvement in the illegal activity. She said PhilVieva is no longer involved in onion trading as it was blacklisted in 2018, but admitted that her trucking business served companies involved in onion trading.
Quimbo said based on public records, BPI grants onion import permits to three select entities whose owners are connected to PhilVieva.
"These three are the biggest importers of yellow onions in 2022 with a total volume of at least 5,445 metric tons... which is 68.74% of the total imported volume," Quimbo said in a press conference.
"These same entities also imported 7,648 metric tons of red onions in 2022 which is 41.02% of total imported volume. It is clear that Cruz is still importing onions despite her denials."
Quimbo then questioned why Cruz's PhilVieva was still allowed by the BPI to import onions despite being blacklisted.
"May nagbubulagbulagan ba o lantarang nakikipagsabwatan ang BPI sa pandaraya sa taumbayan?" Quimbo said as she urged the National Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine Competition Commission, and the Department of Agriculture to move against the alleged cartel.
(Are people in BPI turning a blind eye on these or are they in cohorts in swindling the public?)
Asked if filing of criminal charges against individuals, including government officials, is on the table for his committee given the revelations in the inquiry, Enverga answered in the affirmative.
"For a cartel to thrive, kailangan may kasama ka sa gobyerno. Hindi magiging matagumpay 'yan kung walang kasabwat sa gobyerno, and we will keep you posted on that," Enverga said in the same press conference.
(A cartel won't thrive without aid from the government. You won't suceed without government personnel being your cohorts.)
"I don't want to preempt the other members of the committee, same with Cong. Stella, but personally, [I would say] there will be individuals whom we will recommend for the filing of charges," he added.
"We will have a review of the documents to ensure that there is also a fair chance given to the individuals we are pursuing and the case is backed by documentary evidence."
According to Quimbo, the testimonies of cold storage operators during the inquiry stating the cold storages were full of onions during the last quarter of 2022 also proved that the onion supply shortage was manufactured.
"Based on Philippine Statistics Authority records in 2022, the shortage of onions is just 7%. That is why the spike in prices which reached 400% from July to December is not justified. There is no reason for the price to reach as much as P700 a kilo. It is clear as day that this is because of the onion cartel," she said.
GMA News Online has sought comments from DA officials Rex Estoperez and Kristine Evangelista and will publish them as soon as they become available.
The BPI is under the DA. —KBK, GMA Integrated News