The risk of Australian potato crops getting Zebra Chip disease if a 24-year ban on New Zealand potato imports is lifted is so low as to be "absolutely minimal", an industry group spokesman says.
The business manager for Potatoes NZ Inc, Ron Gall, said the Australian Agriculture Department's own scientific assessment said there was no risk.
"These are not potatoes for fresh market use or for fresh consumption," Gall said.
"They are fresh potatoes to go to secure facilities for processing into french fries or crisps.
"The [import] protocol requires them to be washed, sprout-inhibited and sealed into containers to go to the processing facilities."
Gall said there was no risk of the potato carrying any insect vector which could transmit any disease, and suppliers and processors would ensure the potatoes did not have the disease.
The Australian group lobbying against the Kiwi potatoes, AUSVEG, had the opportunity to make a submission, and had to make their submission based on science, he said.
"We will wait and see what their submission is and will comment on it at that time."
Regarding the group's claim the livelihood of Australian potato growers and their families were at risk, Gall said "the reality is if Australia wants to play in the global market and export, it has to be prepared to import at the same time."
New Zealand had a history in the past of exporting potatoes to Australia for processing in response to inquiries from Australians following adverse events such as droughts or floods. The most recent request was about five years ago, Gall said, which had prompted the New Zealand application to reinstate exports to that country.
"We never expected the market to be there on an annual basis. It is to provide Australian processors with an alternative source of supply should they require it."
Australian potato farmers fear their crops could be devastated by Zebra Chip disease if the 24-year ban on New Zealand potato imports is lifted.
Biosecurity Australia has proposed lifting the import ban under strict quarantine rules in response to a six-year campaign by New Zealand to allow its potatoes be processed into chips in Australia.
The import of fresh potatoes for human consumption and for processing is currently prohibited from all countries and there have been no imports from New Zealand since 1988.
Zebra Chip affects the starch and sugar levels in the potato affecting taste and appearance, making it unfit for sale.
Australia's A$614 million ($802 million) potato industry is currently free of the disease.
Last August, Australia lifted a 90-year ban on New Zealand apple imports, stoking similar fears from the domestic apple and pear industry about the risk of disease including Fire Blight. By October nearly a quarter of New Zealand apple imports had been rejected.
AUSVEG, the peak industry body of vegetable farmers, says allowing New Zealand potatoes could lead to yield losses of up to 50 per cent if Zebra Chip hit Australian crops.
The group's chief executive, Richard Mulcahy, has questioned the quality and advice of the scientific advice that formed the basis of the draft decision.
Mulcahy said: ''Placing the livelihood of these Australian potato growers and their families in danger based on import conditions constructed from poorly researched, non-scientific information is simply far too great a risk to take.''
He said the disease dramatically affected the health of potato plants and in the year of 2008-2009, causing losses of over A$60m to New Zealand's potato industry.
"AUSVEG is calling for these proposed measures to be scrapped and for the importation of potentially diseased potatoes to remain suspended, especially as the Zebra Chip disease complex is not fully understood by the scientific community," he said.
The Agriculture Department and Minister Joe Ludwig's office both said a decision had not been made yet, with a 60-day consultation currently underway.
The department said the Zebra Chip was carried by a bug, a psyllid, on the foliage, not the actual potato, which would be the only element imported.
It said potatoes would be inspected in New Zealand before departure, in Australia upon arrival and would remain quarantined en route to the processing plant. The processor would have to dispose of the waste in a certain manner.
- Fairfax NZ, The Age
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