QUARANTINE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Government to permit NZ apples into Australia
, January 20, 2007
Biosecurity Australia's recent decision to permit the entry into the country of apples from New Zealand, where fire blight disease is endemic, risks jeopardising Australia's apple and pear exports. Peter Westmore reports.Biosecurity Australia, the Federal Government agency responsible for protecting Australia from animal and plant diseases, has recommended permitting the entry into Australia of apples from New Zealand, where the fire blight disease is endemic.
Fire blight causes damage to fruit, stunted growth to trees and reduced yields. It has never been eliminated from any country in which it has become established.
If the disease were to become established in Australia, it would have a very damaging effect on Australia's apple and pear industries which have fought to prevent the entry of NZ apples.
Many other plants are also subject to fire blight, including roses, but Biosecurity Australia has been in favour of lifting the ban on NZ apple imports for years.
A plan to permit the entry of New Zealand apples in 2004 was only stopped after a major public outcry from farmers, horticulturalists and many others.
The absence of fire blight and other diseases in Australia enables Australian apples to be exported to countries which currently restrict access from New Zealand apples.Tasmanian apple exports
For example, Tasmania, which accounts for about two-thirds of Australia's apple exports, is able to access the Japanese and Taiwanese markets because they are free of both fire blight and fruit fly.
The basis of the latest decision is that Biosecurity Australia has judged that if disinfection procedures and visual inspection of trees are conducted in New Zealand, there is a "very low" risk of infected fruit reaching Australia, and spreading to other plants. It believes that this is compatible with Australia's international trading obligations, particularly the risk of an inquiry by the World Trade Organization.
Biosecurity Australia evidently prefers a "low" risk to preventing the risk altogether. Interestingly, in its import risk assessment, it refused to recommend NZ apples be allowed into Western Australia, because of the risk of the disease apple scab, which is present in other states but not WA.
A Senate inquiry into the administration of Biosecurity Australia, following its recommendation to permit the import of apples from New Zealand, was conducted in 2004. It reported in 2005.
It found that Biosecurity Australia had given inadequate weight to the economic consequences of entry of New Zealand apples, that inspections of NZ orchards should be conducted by Australian officials, as well as their New Zealand counterparts, and that Biosecurity Australia must improve its communications channels with Australian fruit-growers.
The Senate inquiry also criticised the fact that Biosecurity Australia allowed trade considerations to enter into its decisions on quarantine issues.
It concluded, "There is no doubt that Biosecurity have a high level of concern in relation to a WTO challenge by New Zealand. From our observation this is a common occurrence in all IRA's [Import Risk Assessments] undertaken by Biosecurity.
"It is relevant that Biosecurity personnel are not trade experts, and do not have legal training. Our contention is that an IRA should be undertaken with WTO policy issues left to trade and legal experts."
It concluded, "There is a very real danger that protecting Australia from any potential WTO challenge will result in taking the ‘easy or safe options’ when faced with issues that are reliant on opinions to resolve."
The Senate inquiry also challenged the basis on which the decision had been made to permit the entry of New Zealand apples. It said, "The Committee notes that Biosecurity Australia has used a single fruit unit as the risk unit for the purposes of their risk modelling. In evidence, Biosecurity Australia explained that this approach, rather than applying another unit such as a box, pallet, kilo, or tonne, reflected more accurately the practical realities of the transmission risk."
However, the Senate Committee said it was "concerned that this does not accurately reflect such realities as large-scale dumping of produce from retail or service outlets, following such an incidence as the breakdown of refrigeration facilities".
The attitude of NZ fruit-growers, and their government, has consistently been that there is no evidence that mature apples transmit fire blight, and therefore there should be no restrictions on the entry of New Zealand apples to Australia.
This approach is entirely unacceptable to the Australian apple and pear industry.
At no time have the New Zealand apple-growers offered to indemnify the Australian industry for any damage caused in Australia by an outbreak of fire blight from NZ apples.
Unless there is a major public campaign against the entry of New Zealand apples, it seems likely that the decision of Biosecurity Australia will stand, with grave risks for the future of the Australian apple and pear industries, and more broadly, Australian horticulture.- Peter Westmore.