Gum Arabic Industry Under Fire
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Legislators and businessmen who import a tree product widely used by U.S. candy, cosmetics and medical industries are scrambling to respond to press reports that an accused terrorist leader and multimillionaire has a big interest in Sudan’s gum arabic industry.
For more than a year, legislators and lobbyists have fought to protect gum arabic from the effects of economic sanctions imposed on Sudan.
Now supporters and users of gum arabic confront a painful question: In advocating for an obscure but extremely useful import, do they inadvertently help Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian businessman now portrayed as America’s No. 1 enemy?
Bin Laden’s alleged terrorist base in Afghanistan and chemical plant in Sudan were hit by U.S. missiles last week after officials accused him of masterminding U.S. embassy bombings in Africa.
Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who has pursued import exemptions for two companies in his district that import gum arabic, said he would withdraw his support for exemptions if he sees proof that bin Laden, whose fortune is estimated at more than $200 million, is associated with the industry.
The three major importers of gum arabic in this country _ Importers Service Co. of Jersey City, N.J., TIC Gums of Belcamp, Md., and Frutaron Meer of North Bergen, N.J. _ do business with Sudan’s Gum Arabic Co. through P.L. Thomas & Co. of Morristown, N.J.
P.L. Thomas’ president, Paul Flowerman, said he is convinced there is no terrorist connection.
``I’ve been going to the Sudan for the last 20 years. I spend about a week there, both in the capital city and in the bush. My family has been involved in that gum arabic business for the last 50 years,″ Flowerman said. ``I have never seen the slightest indication of any participation of outside interests in gum arabic.″
Chris Berliner, plant engineer for Importers Service Co., said he spoke Monday to the chairman of the Gum Arabic Co. in Khartoum, the Sudanese company that controls exports of the product, and asked if bin Laden is connected with Sudan’s gum arabic business.
``He reiterated his flat denial of any association with any company owned by bin Laden, any land used by bin Laden, or bin Laden himself,″ Berliner said.
Sudan produces 70 percent to 90 percent of the world’s gum arabic, a sap from the acacia tree that is used in a wide variety of products including candy, medicines and cosmetics. Working as an emulsifier, gum arabic helps prevent fruit particles in soft drinks from falling to the bottom, seals the inner portion of candies and maintains consistency in shampoo.
A two-year-old State Department ``fact sheet″ says bin Laden held a ``near monopoly″ over gum, corn, sunflower and sesame products in Sudan through companies he controlled, according to Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst and terrorism expert at the Congressional Research Service.
But industry representatives strongly dispute any bin Laden link. And a State Department official said Monday there is ``no indication″ of a connection between bin Laden and Gum Arabic Co.
Still, suspicions remain.
``Bin Laden has a foot in virtually everything that is profitable and not so profitable in Sudan,″ said Yossef Bodansky, director of the House Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare.
When the possibility of economic sanctions against Sudan’s pro-Iranian regime arose in 1997, many interest groups lobbied for unfettered access to Sudan’s gum arabic, which they consider unrivaled in quality.
When President Clinton imposed the sanctions, he created a loophole for the product, advising the Congress that the U.S. government ``may consider″ granting licenses for the importation of ``certain products unavailable from other sources, such as gum arabic.″
That wording has allowed companies to continue importing gum arabic under existing contracts. But once those contracts expire, companies that import and use gum arabic may lose their access to the Sudanese market.
Menendez has introduced legislation that would save gum arabic from import prohibitions. But he said in a statement Monday that his efforts came ``prior to any press reports of allegations linking the Sudanese gum arabic industry to Mr. Osama bin Laden.″