Illegal grape shipment destroyed by European customs

The fight against illegal growing of protected varieties

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In May 2015 a grape shipment arriving from Egypt containing two and a half tons of illegally grown grapes was destroyed at the Belgian customs. The grapes were of a protected variety and were grown without the necessary license.

The variety in subject is the well-known white seedless grape variety “Early Sweet”™, owned by Grapa Company. Grapa is a family owned business based in Cyprus; it was founded over 15 years ago with the sole purpose of breeding and commercializing new table grape varieties. Today, it is a leader in the field and is managed by the Karniel family.

Early Sweet is known for its consistent high production, long shelf life and a hint of Muscat flavor. It is also the earliest commercial grape variety to ripen that exists in the market today and is therefore on high popular demand in early growing regions.

Illegal Shipments

Early Sweet’s popularity has also drawn unauthorized growers. They illegally grow the variety which is then shipped to Europe. This season the illegal grape trafficking phenomenon was expected to expand. An obstruction in the Indian grape supply was to cause a shortage of white grapes in the European markets. A rise in demand meant grapes would need to be airfreighted in order to fill the shortage. Unauthorized early season grape growers saw this as an opportunity.

Grapa is highly invested in finding such illegal shipments. Rafi Karniel, Managing director of Grapa, is dedicated to the enforcement of the company’s rights which include protecting the varieties which the company commercializes. Part of his efforts is focused on putting an end to the phenomenon of illegal grape exports of these varieties. In recent years, new work methods have been developed in order to locate these shipments with higher success and efficiency. Accordingly, Grapa’s success in catching illegal shipments has proven itself efficient.


The Grapa team works year round in order to be prepared for the season and to increase the chances of catching the illegal grape shipments. These preparations include maintaining a DNA database, use of traceability sticker system and legal actions against infringing growers and traders. One of the most important tools Grapa uses to enforce its rights is inspections in European customs. In order to have the right to make these inspections, the variety must be registered in Europe and an application for action by customs must be filed. Once these steps are taken, the variety right’s holder is authorized to request detention of suspected shipments.

In recent years, Rafi Karniel together with his brother, Adi Karniel, Technical Manager at Grapa, spent many hours in customs, in chain stores and in wholesale markets for this purpose. Adv. Alexandra Sapir, Legal manager at Grapa, has been a part of this effort for the past two years, and is very devoted in promoting this cause.

Since European customs are incredibly busy, it is impossible for the customs officials to find all the illegal produce that arrives. “Unauthorized growers exporting protected grape varieties will misleadingly use names of free varieties. This sometimes interferes with the customs work”, said Rafi Karniel. For this reason, Karniel states he has taken extra measures to ensure that illegal shipments will be stopped at customs. “It is crucial to use the services of an expert law firm in each country in Europe”, said Karniel. “These law firms are able to communicate with customs more fluently and efficiently and this is what ultimately enables the confiscation of illegal shipments”.

“This May, we received information about a suspicious shipment which had arrived to Belgian customs from Egypt. I requested to detain this shipment and took the first flight to Belgium in order to inspect it. I arrived to find a large air shipment of 5 pallets, weighing a total of two and a half tons. The shipment immediately looked suspicious; it consisted of blank black cartons with no identifying details of the grower, and only a small sticker containing details of the exporter. In addition, the exporter was a general food exporter, not a fresh produce exporter as customary. I then proceeded to evaluate the grapes and was convinced beyond doubt that the grapes were Early Sweet. The customs, upon my request, destroyed the two and a half tons of illegal grapes. Samples taken from this shipment were sent to a DNA laboratory, which confirmed the grapes were indeed of the Early Sweet variety”, said Karniel.

Collaborating with breeders

In the past, Grapa’s policy has been to try to reach a settlement with unauthorized growers and regularize their legal status. Although this method was successful, it appears this policy was misinterpreted as legitimacy for unauthorized growers to try and export their grapes illegally. This caused Grapa to change its policy.

Karniel believes collaboration amongst breeders in the field of enforcement is important in order to optimize enforcement methods and scope. “I cannot see a future for innovative breeders in a world where plant breeder’s rights are not properly enforced and respected”, he said. He sees no problem in collaborating with competing companies as they share a mutual goal in the field of enforcement of breeder’s rights. “I am proud to say I am currently collaborating with another respectable grape breeder in some legal actions”, said Karniel. He believes breeder collaboration will contribute to a positive change in respect of breeder’s rights amongst growers. He is always happy to share his knowledge and experience with other breeders dealing with similar challenges. “Only last month I was approached by a breeding company in a different field, asking to learn from our experience in order to enforce their rights”, continued Karniel.

Moreover Grapa is a member of Geslive, located in Spain. Geslive is a breeder’s organization for the management, protection and enforcement of its member’s plant variety rights. “Geslive is involved in everything from negotiating contracts to market inspections performed by the company’s own inspectors across Europe. Adv. Antonio Villarroel, Managing Director of Geslive, is one of the world leading experts in plant variety enforcement and is a dear friend of me and my family. Antonio has taught me everything I know about enforcement and the collaboration between us is very close and extremely productive”, said Karniel.


Rafi Karniel has worked hectically over the past several years in order to integrate his knowledge and abilities in the field of enforcing plant breeder’s rights; today he is one of the most significant activists in this field. He has gained his expertise in the field through years of endless practical experience and the daily encounter with this matter. Therefore, in 2013 the CPVO invited him to Rome to lecture on the topic in their seminar on the enforcement of plant variety rights. “The feedbacks I received after the lecture were quite amazing. People who have been in the field for years came up to me and told me that this was the most practical lecture in the seminar. They expressed the importance of the lecture to them in sense of the practical experience and methods that they can implement in their work, beyond the theoretical knowledge”, said Karniel.

Grapa is also a member of CIOPORA, an international plant breeders’ association located in Germany. CIOPORA is focused, among other things, on developing systems for IP Protection in the field of plant innovation. Grapa is very active in CIOPORA’s fruit section. Mrs. Yael Victoria Miara, Grapa’s IP manager, is the vice head technical expert of CIOPORA’s fruit section. She represents CIOPORA in her work with organizations like UPOV and CPVO. Rafi Karniel is the crop leader for grapes, a department within CIOPORA’s fruit section and is involved with CIOPORA’s endeavors concerning table grapes. “Dr. Edgar Krieger, Secretary General of CIOPORA, once joined me for a night-time inspection in the Hamburg wholesale market. Grapa’s close connection with CIOPORA can generate some much needed knowledge on table grape IP enforcement. We receive valuable information and assistance from CIOPORA”, said Karniel. “One of our goals”, he continues, “is to share with the CIOPORA community in terms of our accumulated experience in the field, in order to further broaden the knowledge on the topic and to promote the breeders’ communal purpose of IP enforcement”.

As proven by their rising success in the market, protected grape varieties are more profitable. Either from the higher market prices of these varieties or the lower growing costs. For example, as in the case of ARRA varieties, growing costs are lower due to less manual work that the varieties require. In comparison with these financial benefits, royalties are not high and this is the reason for the rise in demand for protected grape varieties by growers.


However, growing protected varieties illegally, without a license, is costly to the grower due to the losses that he must endure in fines and destruction of illegal shipments in customs. The inevitable losses that are involved with trying to grow protected varieties without the necessary license are ultimately greater than the price of the license itself. Furthermore, the industry for table grapes is a relatively small community in which the grower’s reputation is important. A grower who attempts to grow and export protected varieties illegally will also suffer the consequences to his reputation and future prospects of his business. “Importers are not interested in working with such growers and are definitely not interested in illegal trading or in having a shipment they are waiting for destroyed”, said Karniel. “For these reasons, I call to all growers to refrain from illegally growing protected varieties, it isn’t worth it and the risk is too high. In addition, I call to breeders, from all fields, to invest in enforcing their rights and to use all methods at their disposal in order to fight this phenomenon. We must collaborate because we are united in our goal and we must be united in our efforts as well”, he summarized.

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