Sri Lanka defends Ceylon tea after Russian ban

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka's plantation minister on Wednesday denied that the country's agricultural products, including its famous Ceylon tea, are dangerous, days after Russia imposed a temporary ban on such goods.

Russian agriculture safety watchdog Rosselkhoznadzor banned all imports of agricultural products from Sri Lanka starting Dec. 18, saying it found an insect known as the Khapra beetle in the packaging of a consignment of Sri Lankan tea.

The beetle is one of the world's most destructive pests for grain and seed products.

Plantation Minister Navin Dissanayake told reporters that the insect is not common in Sri Lanka and there is less than a 5 percent chance that it came from the island nation.

He said the insect could have entered the container when the ship stopped in other ports on its way to Russia. In addition, "this was in the packaging, not inside," he said.

The Ceylon Tea Board, the government agency that monitors the tea industry, has said the insect may have remained in the shipping container after it was earlier used to transport grain, not necessarily of Sri Lankan origin.

Tea production is one of the main sources of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. In 2015, Russia was the top buyer of Ceylon tea, purchasing a total of $156.6 million.

Dissanayake said a team of top officials and scientists from Sri Lanka may visit Russia next week to urge a lifting of the ban.

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