Growers livid over grapes import shock

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Grape growers claim they have been betrayed by WA authorities and the State Government after losing their battle to prevent imports from California they believe pose a major biosecurity threat to local vineyards.

The first consignment of grapes was cleared from quarantine late yesterday after a stunning backflip by the Department of Agriculture and Food WA and the Government.

The grapes could be on sale at local markets today and on supermarket shelves by the weekend despite warnings about the introduction of pests and diseases.

Until yesterday, the Government and DAFWA had backed the growers in their fight despite the Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry clearing the way for imports. But State regulations which blocked the imports were immediately amended after a meeting with DAFF.

Only last month, the State Government warned the fight to protect the local industry could go all the way to the World Trade Organisation and in a recent submission to Federal authorities DAFWA concluded that there was a high risk of a devastating fungal pathogen being imported into the State.

Californian grapes have been imported into the rest of Australia since 2002 but not allowed into WA because of fears of introducing new diseases, including phomopsis viticola.

DAFWA director-general Rob Delane said the department was now satisfied that Californian export standards had cut the risk to an "appropriately low level".

Acting Agriculture Minister Bill Marmion said the Government had changed its position because with US export standards in place as an additional safeguard, the risk was considered low and there was no scientific justification to restrict the trade.

Table Grapes WA, the Swan Valley Grape Growers Association and the Regional Winemakers Association were stunned by the speed and timing of the backflip.

DAFF officially cleared the way for imports last Thursday, import permits were lodged within days and grapes began flooding into WA yesterday.

Table Grapes WA president Roger Fahl said DAFWA had thrown its own scientific evidence out the window. He said Californian export standards were quality-based and it was nonsense to suggest they offered biosecurity protection.

"We have been able to keep these diseases out for 100 years and now the department has caved in . . . jeopardising an industry with an overall value of almost $1 billion a year to WA's economy," he said.

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