South Africa has referred the matter to the World Trade Organisation.
Tonnes of oranges are rotting in containers stuck in European ports and could be wasted as South Africa and the European Union clash in a trade dispute over import rules.
South Africa, the world's second-largest exporter of fresh citrus fruits after Spain, filed a complaint with the World Trade Organisation (WTO) last month when the EU introduced new phytosanitary requirements that growers say threaten their survival.
The measures came into force in July when ships carrying hundreds of containers full of South African fruit bound for Europe were already at sea, causing them to be blocked on arrival, according to the South African Citrus Growers Association (CGA).
"This is a complete and utter disaster," CGA CEO Justin Chadwick told AFP. "Food of exceptional quality, which poses no risk, is just sitting there... It's really a disaster."
The EU rules are aimed at combating the potential spread of the false codling moth, an African pest that has a soft spot for oranges and grapefruit.
The EU requires all oranges destined for European tables to be subjected to extreme cold treatment and kept at temperatures of two degrees Celsius or less for 25 days, which South African growers say is not necessary as the country already has more targeted means of preventing the infestation.
In its WTO complaint, South Africa argues that the EU's requirements are "not based on science", "discriminatory" and excessive.
And they place additional stress on an already stressed industry.
"It will add costs. And right now, that's what no producer in the world can afford," Hannes de Waal, who runs the almost century-old Sundays River Citrus farm in South Africa's southeast, said.
De Waal, whose company has orange, clementine and lemon trees on more than 7,000 hectares, has already seen his income eroded by rising transport costs since the pandemic, as well as fertiliser costs due to the war in Ukraine.
Europe is the largest market for South African citrus fruits, which are worth nearly two billion euros and account for 37% of exports, according to the CGA. The sector employs more than 120,000 people in a country where more than one in three people are unemployed.
The new rules, which came at the height of the orange season, caught producers off guard. Some 3.2 million cartons of citrus fruit worth about €35 million were left with papers that were invalid on arrival.
The South African government rushed to issue new documents for shipments that met the new criteria, but hundreds of containers had to be destroyed, according to Chadwick.
"The system we already have in place involves cold treatment, but targeted at risk, whereas the EU measure is a blanket measure that affects all oranges," Chadwick said.
The dispute is now in the hands of the WTO. The parties have 60 days to negotiate a solution. Failing that, the complainant can request arbitration by a panel.
The EU has expressed confidence that its measures are "WTO compatible".
The objective of the phytosanitary criteria is to protect the EU "from the potentially significant impact on agriculture and the environment, should this pest become established" in Europe, according to a European Commission spokesperson.
Chadwick hopes that "common sense" will prevail and that a quick solution can be found. "Our industry is under pressure. For us, this is the year of survival."