Mexican Corn Molds After Ships Take Icy Route to S. Africa

  • All vessels eventually cleared after contamination scraped off
  • South Africa is importing record levels of grain after drought

Some shipments of white corn from Mexico have arrived in South African ports covered in mold after carriers opted for a longer route around the tip of South America instead of through the Panama Canal.

Vessels carrying corn reached the South African port of Durban earlier this marketing season with cargo showing mold damage, said Hampie Lourens, the managing director of South African Bulk Terminals, which is the only grain terminal in sub-Saharan Africa capable of handling fully laden Panamax vessels.

South Africa has been forced to import record amounts of the country’s staple white corn after suffering its worst drought since records began in 1904. Complaints about the quality of Mexican imports were raised by an advisory committee to the JSE Ltd., which operates the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, Chris Sturgess, commodities derivatives director at the bourse, said in November.

The affected ships used a 45-day route around Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost point of South America, and near Antarctica, rather than the 25- to 30-day trip via the Panama Canal, Lourens said in an interview on Tuesday. It appears that exposure to cold temperatures after having been loaded in Mexico’s warm, humid climate resulted in moisture contamination in some of the grain, he said.

All the vessels were eventually cleared by South African health officials and their cargoes discharged after the contaminated corn at the surface of the shipments was scraped off. However, the mold led to delays with one cargo, at a terminal run by the South African government, which was held up for two months, Lourens said.

“A mold developed a crust on the top” of some of the corn cargoes, Lindsay Ralphs, the chief executive officer of Bidvest Group Ltd., which owns South African Bulk Terminals, said in an interview on Tuesday.

It’s unclear how much corn was affected in total, both Ralphs and Lourens said.

Mexico accounted for 91 percent of the 641,235 tons of white corn imported by South Africa in the season that began May 1, data from the South African Grain Information Service show. Imports for the season will probably reach 850,000 to 900,000 tons, said Wandile Sihlobo, head of economic and agribusiness intelligence at the Agricultural Business Chamber in Pretoria, the capital.

The price of white corn has risen 56 percent on the South African Futures Exchange in Johannesburg over the last two years to 3,088 rand ($232.82) a metric ton.

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