by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Agriculture: Apples - who¬ís fooling whom?
, November 4, 2000
Has the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) managed to pull the wool over the eyes of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries Minister, Warren Truss, and Cabinet in recommending that apples from fire blight affected New Zealand be allowed into Australia?
The AQIS Import Risk Analysis (IRA) report came to the conclusion that, if New Zealand apples were permitted into Australia, the
* probability of fire blight entering Australia was "high";
* probability of establishment if the disease entered was "low";
* probability of the disease spreading was "high";
* economic consequences of it taking hold was "extreme".
The decision to allow in New Zealand apples is based on the assessment that there was "low" probability of the disease establishing itself in Australia. This is a rather amazing conclusion given that in the past century, fire blight has spread to 41 countries. What's more, AQIS came to this conclusion in a rather extraordinary way.
The report said that AQIS estimated that the probability of an insect spreading the disease from "an apple core" that was infected with fire blight to a suitable host plant at "1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000" chances.
Given that individual shipments of up to 500,000 apples could be expected from NZ, that the apples would be dispersed into supermarkets and shops around Australia (including into apple and pear growing regions), then, statistically, the probability of the disease establishing itself is extremely high.
Even apart from the discarded apple scenario, many others could be envisaged. For example, what if a consumer purchases contaminated NZ apples, puts them in a fruit bowl, goes on holidays or doesn't consume the apples before they deteriorate, then discards them in the back yard compost with other vegetable matter not far from an apple tree, with insects present? Based on this, it would be reasonable to argue that the risk of fire blight being established was not "low", but at least "moderate" if not "high".
Many other high risk scenarios could have been considered, including use of infected cartons, trash or twigs. Consequently, other flaws in the report take on the dimension of gaping chasms.
The protocol allows fruit from orchards that have had the disease in the past, despite strong scientific evidence that this virulent bacterium cannot be eradicated from an orchard.
The Report only requires that there be a 50-metre buffer zone between blocs with no visible sign of the disease and blocs that are infected.
This is despite the fact that the disease can spread by insects, rain, wind, birds and that it can be found in or on fruit without being obviously visible.
When there was a suspected outbreak of fire blight in Melbourne Botanical Gardens a few years ago, all apples from within a five kilometre radius were prohibited from entering other states on health grounds. It is impossible to have a situation in Australia where fruit produced within the country is under stronger restrictions than imported fruit.
The proposed AQIS protocol allows New Zealand growers to remove branches showing symptoms of the disease, and to use antibiotics like streptomycin to attack the disease, before registering an orchard for exports to Australia. The problem is that removing diseased branches doesn't remove the disease from the tree and antibiotics suppress symptoms of the disease but don't kill it. This part of the protocol just makes the job of detecting infected trees all the more difficult.
The proposed protocol requires only visual inspection for Australian import registration. Fire blight is not always visibly detectable. If visual inspection reveals suspect trees, then scientific testing is required. But the protocol is silent on who does the scientific tests and the standard of testing.
It is understood that the Japanese apple protocol with NZ requires that all trees on all farms wishing to export to Japan must be scientifically tested for fire blight three or four times annually, under strict Japanese supervision and in accredited independent laboratories. This is such a costly procedure that no NZ apples are exported to Japan.
The Australian protocol will require that all NZ apples be dipped in a chlorine solution to kill any fire blight bacteria. This is despite scientific evidence from at least five studies showing this process does not kill the bacteria in the calyx, the indented area under the apple.
The protocol says that for every consignment of fruit imported, 600 pieces of fruit are to be visually inspected. A consignment can hold up to 500,000 pieces of fruit. This process is supposed to allow for detection of fire blight on apples; for the detection of the disease on leaves and twigs (that are worse carriers than apples); and for the detection of 10 other quarantine pests, some of which are extremely difficult to see. How is visible inspection of about 0.1% of a consignment supposed to be adequate quarantine protection?
There are just 60 days to appeal the draft protocol, not to an independent judge, but to AQIS.