MPI 'really dropped the ball' on biosecurity, say fruit-growers

Two big players in the horticulture industry say the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) must accept responsibility for a biosecurity botch-up that's resulting in the mass destruction of apple and stone fruit trees.

MPI has blamed an American facility, but two Hawke's Bay growers say MPI dropped the ball on its auditing, and lacks the resources to protect New Zealand.

Hawke's Bay company Yummy Fruit cultivates new varieties of apples and stone fruit in its nurseries. They've now discovered the budwood and rootstock they imported over the past six years was done so without proper certification.

Yummy Fruit manager Paul Paynter believes his plants are clean, but if they were infected with any diseases it's likely it's already in the environment, and destroying the trees achieves nothing.

"What I'm really worried about is the amount of time it's taken to put all these trees in place and the impact it's going to have on the industry - these are the latest and greatest varieties," he says.

"New Zealand has to be at the premium end of the market because we've got high costs of production, land and shipping - and so we have to be innovative and have these hot new products to stay alive."

Washington facility the Clean Plant Centre failed its last MPI onsite audit, so the Ministry has ordered all plants linked to it since its previous onsite audit six years ago be contained or destroyed.

Thirty-two growers and importers are affected, six of which are bringing a High Court injunction against MPI - and Newshub understands a nursery in Nelson is taking independent legal action.

MPI wouldn't answer questions about its audit process or whether it would take responsibility for the erroneous import of material, saying the matter is before the courts.

"MPI has very carefully assessed all of the risks associated with this material and our decisions are about protecting New Zealand and the horticulture industry from those risks," MPI director of plants, food and environment Peter Thomson says.

The Yummy Fruit nursery Newshub visited in Hastings has a couple of thousand trees of a variety of early season nectarine.

They've been in the ground two years and have flowered twice, so any pests or diseases are likely already in the air

"MPI has really dropped the ball on this one," Mr Paynter says.

"This import failure started just two years after PSA arrived and decimated the kiwifruit industry, and that purportedly arrived on pollen."

Kerry Sixtus also owns a nursery in Hawke's Bay, and says the order to destroy or contain trees by August 22 makes no sense and will cost him millions.

"They've given us a timeframe that is unrealistic, and I don't think is relative to the biosecurity risks that they say exist," he said.

"If there was a biosecurity risk, it should've been dealt with before the plants were in bloom."
"If there was a biosecurity risk, it should've been dealt with before the plants were in bloom." Photo credit: Newshub.

"As you can see, these plants are in full bloom - they've been in full bloom for a week, there's bees on them. If there was a biosecurity risk, it should've been dealt with before the plants were in bloom."

Both growers believe MPI isn't resourced well enough to provide adequate biosecurity protection to New Zealand.

"They've got myrtle rust, M Bovis, PSA, a number of issues in the past, and they're an organisation that has a lot of change in their personnel - some would say a dumbing down of their technical capacity," Mr Paynter says.

"I think they're really nervous that here's an obvious breach that's occured for a number of years and they weren't on the ball."

Whether there is a real threat to biosecurity is unknown, but MPI says some diseases can lay dormant for years.

It says the plants must be contained before spring, but Paul Paynter says he doesn't have space to store them.

So they're destined for the burning pile.