20 Nov 2018

MPI at odds with growers over seedling imports

4:03 pm on 20 November 2018

A six month long row over 48,000 impounded seedlings looks set to drag into 2020 before it is fixed.

generic seedlings

File photo. Photo: 123rf

Orchardists and nursery managers are unhappy about that, saying it threatens their livelihood.

But the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says it is essential to preserve the fruit tree industry from pests and diseases that could otherwise sneak in undetected.

The problem began when an American supplier of plant specimens to New Zealand was struck off a register of approved suppliers by MPI last May.

The Clean Plant Centre North West, (CPCNW) in Washington State, lost its accreditation because MPI determined errors and omissions in its record keeping meant the fruit tree seedlings it supplied to this country could have been infested with pests and diseases.

In the ensuing turmoil, growers claimed a $1.5 billion loss from plants they paid for but could not sell or propogate.

The battle also went to the High Court.

Later, 20,000 plants were cleared for sale, but many others were destroyed and thousands remain in limbo.

Ministry officials and growers met staff at CPCNW in Prosser, Washington State, last week, in an attempt to resolve the standoff.

A senior manager at MPI, Peter Thomson, said some progress was made - he took a good look around the facility and was allowed to see its records - but more work was needed.

"Next year, their plan is to do a number of internal and external audits of their systems," he said.

"If they go well, they will contact us and tell us they are ready (for an audit), but I do not expect to hear from them until later on next year."

Mr Thomson said it could be 2020 before CPCNW could win re-accreditation.

CPCNW holds intellectual property rights over many strains of fruit tree, and growers have said they were desperate to get hold of them.

A representative of those growers, Andy Warren, joined Mr Thomson at Prosser - he said he was impressed with standards at the American centre.

"We are extremely satisfied with their processes, enough to say we do not believe there is a biosecurity risk for New Zealand at all, and I think they are doing a remarkably good job."

Mr Warren added that if anyone did not handle this matter properly, it was MPI, not CPCNW.

"There is a fair bit of work that MPI have got to do to get their standards up to scratch themselves.

"Our import and exports standards are out of date and our facility standards are out of date."

Mr Thompson replied it was not surprising to hear growers say conditions at CPCNW were good.

He added MPI was reviewing its own operating procedures, as any organisation would after an incident like this.

But he reiterated, MPI did not start this.

'We have got to remember that the fault here was with the (American) facility that did not even follow their own procedures."

Mr Warren, in turn, had a warning for MPI.

"This whole show is not over yet," he said.

"There are some really important issues still to grapple with.

"These importers have been to hell and back, it has been extremely traumatic, there is a whole compensation package to deal with, given that it was not their fault."

MPI would not discuss compensation in detail, saying just one claim had come in so far.

It would not discuss financial figures, but earlier said $1.5b was too high.

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