Nothing to fear from US grapes: importer

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

A major fruit and vegetable wholesaler has hit back at opposition to grape imports from WA growers. Bullfrog International owner Graham Morgan said there was nothing to fear from grape imports given the strict biosecurity standards applied by Australian authorities.

Mr Morgan, who sold the first consignment of Californian grapes to reach WA last Thursday, said local grape growers were scaremongering about the disease risk.

"This is good for retailers and consumers at a quiet time of the year for the fruit and vegetable industry. Our argument as wholesalers is that it encourages people to eat grapes so that when local grapes are in season, they will eat more," he said.

Some retailers said they planned to sell the grapes for as little as $9/kg to stimulate activity in fruit and vegetable sales. However, the imported grapes were priced at $18/kg in at least one Perth store over the weekend.

Wholesalers, who rely on local growers for fresh produce, are reluctant to speak publicly but some claim grower groups use the spectre of biosecurity as a form of protectionism.

The fears of WA grape growers about the risks from devastating fungal pathogen phomopis viticola were backed by the Department of Agriculture and Food WA and the State Government until last week.

DAFWA plant biosecurity manager John van Schagen said the Federal Department of Agriculture had provided local authorities with information about California's legislated export standards which included safeguards against phomopis viticola.

DAFWA also sought independent advice from an expert on phomopis viticola before changing its risk rating from low to very low, clearing the way for imports.

"We have an obligation under international trade agreements that whatever barriers and restrictions we put in place we have to scientifically justify, otherwise legally we have no grounds if someone challenges them," Mr van Schagen said.

WA grape growing and wine industry groups believe the biosecurity risks outweigh the benefits of allowing WA consumers to eat imported table grapes in winter. They also fear the decision has opened the door to grape imports from Chile, China and other countries.

Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths are stocking Californian grapes but said they had no plans to stock imports when local fruit was in season.

Mr Morgan said: "We generally pay too much for fruit and vegetables in this country and certainly in this State because we have transport costs and because of trade restrictions. Everyone understands there needs to be certain protocols, but this shouldn't be used as a form of tariffs."

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