UPDATE 1-Tax dispute blocks 72,000 T cocoa at Ivorian ports
* Shipment delays could cause cocoa products to spoil
* Exporters say stocks protected from tax by grace period
* Customs officials say need instructions from superiors
By Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN, Nov 2 (Reuters) - Ivory Coast customs officials are blocking the export of 72,000 tonnes of cocoa products remaining from the recently ended 2011-12 season due to confusion over tax rates, exporters and customs officials said on Friday.
The world's top grower this season abolished a 20-year-old subsidy, under which local cocoa grinders benefited from a reduced export tax. Grinders say their leftover products are protected from the new rate by a grace period.
"What is now happening with customs and the Coffee and Cocoa Council (CCC) is totally unacceptable. All of the product exporters ... remain blocked by customs," said the director of an Abidjan-based grinder, who asked not to be named.
Exporters said delays could cause their semi-finished cocoa products, including cocoa butter, to spoil.
Customs officials began applying the new rate for local grinders, including Cargill, Barry Callebaut, CEMOI and ADM, at the start of the 2012/13 the season on Oct. 3, but the finance ministry later said exporters would have until Dec. 31 to export stocks from last season under the previous tax structure.
Ivory Coast's deputy customs director, Pierre Da, relayed the ministry's order of a grace period to customs officials in an Oct. 25 memorandum seen by Reuters. But exporters say port agents have yet to act on it.
"The customs officials run us in circles, don't pick up their phones, say they aren't responsible for the application of the measure, etc. Their superiors don't get back to us," said the head of another grinding company.
Customs officials contacted by Reuters said they were still waiting for further instructions on how to process the stocks for export under the grace period.
"We are waiting for our bosses to tell us how to carry this out, then we'll do it. While it's true that the director sent out a memo, there are other things that must go with it," said one agent, who asked not to be named.
Cocoa stocks at the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro stood at 185,832 tonnes on Oct. 2, the last day of the 2011/12 season, of which 72,263, or nearly 39 percent, were owned by grinders, CCC data showed on Thursday.
The grinders had planned to export around 29,000 tonnes of 2011/12 product stocks in October and the remainder throughout November and December.
"Nothing was exported in October. That's 29,000 tonnes. And now we are in November, and if the situation isn't sorted out, you can add the same amount (to the backlog)," said a third grinder.
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