Potato disease risk disputed

Potatoes New Zealand just wants to set the record straight.

Australia has once again postponed its decision to allow access to New Zealand fresh potatoes for processing, citing biosecurity fears.

Its growers say the recently released Australian Senate Committee report, which recommends a further risk analysis, vindicates their concerns.

They do not want to risk an incursion of a pest which they say has ''ravaged'' the New Zealand potato industry.

Potatoes New Zealand chief executive Champak Mehta said there was no cause for such comments and no substantive risk to Australia's potato industry either.

He said the new analyses proposed by the Senate committee, like the process before it, would not find any substantive evidence to show importing fresh produce posed a significant biosecurity risk to Australia.

While PotatoesNZ respected the senate committee's decision, it would be ''proactively engaging'' with authorities to inject balance into the argument and make sure the correct information was provided to those preparing the next report, Mr Mehta said.

''New Zealand is one of Australia's most important bilateral relationships.

''If New Zealand was to react in the same way to the recent Queensland fruit fly discovery, there would be an immediate halt of imports of Australian produce.

''But we don't do that, because we acknowledge that there are very robust biosecurity measures in place to manage the risk and because we believe that these biosecurity measures should support the flow of trade, not constrain them [imports],'' Mr Mehta said.

There had been inaccuracies in the debate about the size and impact of the threat to the Australian potato industry and these were perpetuated in the Senate report and comments, he said.

The Senate committee decided not to allow access to New Zealand fresh potatoes yet, because of concerns that tomato-potato psyllid and other pests of fresh potatoes might enter Australia, and recommended the Australian Government should conduct a new import risk analysis.

At present, it is only considering fresh potatoes for processing but PotatoesNZ would like to see the scope widened to include fresh potatoes for consumption and seed, saying this would provide more opportunities for its growers.

The committee wants the new analysis to: examine the scientific research into all possible ways the Candidatus Liberibacter solanacearum (or zebra chip) bacteria can be spread, to take into account there is no reliable test to identify the bacteria, and to ascertain what other biological risks exist in New Zealand which might affect Australian potato producers.

Zebra chip causes distinctive dark markings in cooked potatoes.

While the darkening of the potato is not harmful, it does render tubers unacceptable to the processing market.

Australia stopped importing fresh potatoes, along with tomatoes and capsicums, from New Zealand in 2008 because of concern about the psyllid and zebra chip disease.

Tomatoes and capsicums were allowed back into Australia in 2009 and there had been no evidence the psyllid or bacterium had become established in Australia because of that, Mr Mehta said.

Australian grower representatives Ausveg and Potatoes South Australia said, in statements, last month, that zebra chip had ''ravaged'' the New Zealand industry, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses and the Australian industry faced ''catastrophic yield losses'' if access was granted to New Zealand potatoes.

''There's a myth in Australia that zebra chip has `ravaged' the New Zealand industry - and that's not the case,'' Mr Mehta said.

Potatoes NZ estimated the total cost to the New Zealand from the psyllid incursion was about $60 million since 2008, ''far smaller than the figures being used [by Australian growers]''.

''This averages out annually to less than seven percent of farm gate value and about two percent of the overall value chain for potatoes,'' he said.

The senate committee's decision came after ''lengthy delays'' and it was disappointing there was still ''no finality to the process'', Mr Mehta said.

The Australian Government has been asked to respond to the senate report within three months.

- by Ruth Grundy