Growers angry at spud threat

Lauren CelenzaCountryman

New Zealand potato imports could fry the WA industry, according to growers.

Biosecurity Australia is considering a proposal from New Zealand to import fresh potatoes for processing.

But WA potato growers fear the imports will devastate the Australian industry by introducing the zebra chip disease complex.

The disease, also known as tomato potato phyllid, was introduced into NZ in 2006 and in the 2008/09 season it cost its potato producers $43 million.

Zebra chip disease, which cannot be controlled by chemicals, causes lost production and black striping of the potato flesh, rendering it unmarketable. Tomatoes are also affected.

Peak vegetable body AUSVEG is upset Biosecurity Australia is ignoring its concerns and has launched a petition against the proposed NZ imports.

Chairman Hugh Tobin has distributed the petition to Australia’s 2000 growers and will deliver their concerns to Federal Parliament.

“The problem with zebra chip is that it is not only a disease but a bug that spreads the disease, that’s why it’s called a disease complex,” he said.

“Biosecurity Australia has admitted that the disease will come in, but says it will manage it. We are looking at 12 months’ time before the potatoes get over the border.”

Potatoes WA chief executive Jim Turley said the disease had the potential to do horrific damage to the fresh potato industry in WA.

“It’s a very dangerous disease and while we can appreciate Biosecurity Australia in respect to managing the disease, we don’t believe the risk is acceptable at all,” he said.

“There would be a great deal of protocols once the imports arrive but after a while, compliance to protocol would likely decrease leading to an outbreak — and once it’s established, that’s it.”

WA potato grower Sam Calameri is angry the Australian Government is proposing to allow New Zealand to import potatoes into Australia.

“We are against any imports, especially from countries that have diseases as devastating as zebra chip,” he said.

“I would have thought Biosecurity Australia would support the clean image of Australian farmers.”

A Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) spokesman said the department was aware of several matters regarding the importation of New Zealand potatoes.

He claimed that importing potatoes from New Zealand may present a biosecurity risk to domestic growers by the zebra chip bacterium.

“The Australian Government takes the protection of the horticultural industry seriously and implements a strict regime of biosecurity and quarantine measures to ensure that the importation of fresh fruit and vegetables does not compromise the integrity, reputation and livelihood of Australian growers,” the spokesman said.

A Pest Risk Analysis (PRA) on the zebra chip bacterium (finalised in 2009 by the DAFF) evaluated the risks posed by imports from New Zealand.

The report found that processing fresh potatoes under a quarantine approved premises arrangement provided an effective level of protection against imported potatoes entering the environment and the zebra chip bacterium establishing in Australia.

It was proposed that all imported potatoes would be maintained under quarantine control until fully processed, and all waste products would be disposed of in a quarantine approved manner.

“Industry representatives were consulted widely throughout the development of the PRA report, and including a formal 30-day comment period followed by a ‘Zebra Chip Summit’ discussing the outcomes of the assessment,” the DAFF spokesman said.

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