Aussie disease claim threat to NZ potato exports

ROB O'NEILL
Last updated 15:36 25/11/2012

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The future of New Zealand's fresh potato exports to Australia hangs in the balance after an Australian senate inquiry into the trade delayed reporting its findings until next year.

In a repeat of the battle to export fresh apples to Australia, a fight that went all the way to the World Trade Organisation, growers there are concerned about zebra chip syndrome and other potato diseases that exist here but not in Australia.

It's a threat that Australian horticulture lobby Ausveg estimates could cost $250 million if the disease reached Australia.

Officials from Australia's Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) are expected in New Zealand in the next two weeks to inspect storage and export facilities, said Ron Gall, business manager of Potatoes New Zealand.

"I'm not going to prejudice that by saying something right now," he said, adding that for Potatoes NZ the issue was a technical and scientific one, but in Australia it is political. In July an Australian government draft report appeared to be opening the door to the export of fresh potatoes from New Zealand to Australia.

The draft report proposed that the importation of fresh potatoes from New Zealand be permitted subject to import conditions.

At the time, Potatoes NZ chairman Stuart Wright said the news was encouraging and it was hoped the Australian market could be open to New Zealand for the 2012-13 season.

However, Ausveg deputy chief executive William Churchill said the senate inquiry is now not likely to report until March and it could be May before the Australian Government announced its response to that.

Churchill denied the industry was putting up barriers to trade, saying the process is about mitigating risk. "Biosecurity is a very legitimate argument and if the shoe was on the other foot New Zealand would do exactly the same," he said.

Indeed, the detection of a fruit fly in tomato exports from Queensland to New Zealand led to that trade being suspended earlier this year.

The state of New Zealand's biosecurity controls and processes is one area of concern that Ausveg raised in an August submission in response to DAFF's draft report.

"One also must question the ability of the Ministry of Primary Industries in NZ to be able to perform the tasks for which it is responsible. The outbreak of PSA [in kiwifruit] in NZ, and the recent retail sale of potted strawberry plants from China in NZ, give cause for concern about New Zealand's ability to follow through on procedures and mitigate risk," it said. The submission also cited a recent letter to the editor of NZ Grower written by New Zealand Primary Industry biosecurity staff, saying they were almost 30 fulltime staff short.

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More than 100,000 tonnes of New Zealand potatoes are exported each year, roughly a quarter of New Zealand's potato crop. Around three quarters of that was sold as frozen potato products, mostly french fries.

- Sunday Star Times

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