Turners and Growers boss dismisses kiwifruit allegations

Turners and Growers (T&G) chairman Tony Gibbs has dismissed allegations of colluding with foreign powers to undermine the activities of Zespri, and New Zealand trade policy.

Letters from Zespri chief executive Lain Jager to Trade Minister Tim Groser accused Guinness Peat Group (GPG) and subsidiary T&G of working with the United States government to get rid of its single desk kiwifruit marketing status.

The argument is that a single desk is in effect a monopoly, and contrary to the way free trade should operate.

NZPA reported yesterday T&G appeared to have ambushed the kiwifruit growers' marketer at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Mr Gibbs said on Monday the US delegation at the WTO had lodged a question related to his court action in New Zealand against Zespri's single desk status Yesterday, bristling at the collusion allegations, Mr Gibbs rejected that a meeting which a T&G executive held with US Embassy officials in Wellington was part of an orchestrated campaign to put the focus on Zespri's "monopoly".

"Frankly, this is hysterical nonsense ... it is ridiculous," Mr Gibbs told The New Zealand Herald.

"I didn't meet anyone at all. At one stage we did -- I didn't -- drop a copy "of Turners & Growers' claim" to the US Embassy who asked for it." He said the idea that he and T&G might have enough influence to get the US to issue a "please explain" was "ridiculous".

Letters from Mr Jager to Mr Groser in late September and early October said GPG had worked with US embassy staff in Wellington.

"(The evidence) strongly suggests GPG and its subsidiary Turners and Growers are seeking to collude with foreign powers to apply pressure on the New Zealand Government in context of GPG/T&Gs demands for the deregulation of the domestic kiwifruit industry," the letter said.

Mr Jager said there were reports T&G was also trying to undermine free trade talks.

"T&G planned to bring the existence and effect of the New Zealand kiwifruit regulations to the attention of the United States and Korean governments in the context of upcoming free trade discussions in order to put pressure on the New Zealand Government to deregulate the New Zealand kiwifruit industry."

Mr Jager said the reports from various credible sources showed that "on the face of it, this activity is to the detriment of New Zealand's trade policy, international relations and economic interests".

Mr Groser played down the dispute, saying New Zealand was a free country and people were allowed to meet representatives of foreign governments.

"If you want my personal opinion, it's not helpful," he said on TV3 News last night.

"Basically, what is going on here, is having failed to persuade the growers, having failed to persuade the Government -- the allegation is they are attempting to persuade other governments.

"We didn't come down in the last shower. This is a commercial dispute between one company that has failed to crack Zespri's position seeking alternative mechanisms."

T&G is controlled by corporate raider GPG, which led the attack that acquired the apple industry's Enza company from orchardists in 2000, and Mr Gibbs absorbed Enza into T&G.

He has criticised Zespri control of export markets outside Australasia, and complained that Kiwifruit New Zealand had allocated T&G only 1.3 per cent of the 2009 export fruit for collaborative marketing. Turners wants to grow and export its own Enza red variety in New Zealand, though it is already being grown and sold commercially offshore.

Turners has taken Zespri to court, alleging anti-competitive behaviour in the $800 million kiwifruit trade.

"We believe that it's abused that monopoly, and the Zespri monopoly should end," said Mr Gibbs.

He has highlighted the US question, in the context of New Zealand seeking a trade deal with the US.

"Here we are looking for free trade, and here we have the world's last monopoly," he said.


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