MPI staffer filmed saying fruit tree destruction was 'not a biosecurity issue'

The American plant research facility at the centre of the stone fruit destruction row in New Zealand has hit back at the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI). 

It claims MPI never finished its audit of them, and says it has no evidence to back up its claims the imported plant material is a biosecurity risk.

Newshub has obtained video of MPI's own staff telling a Kiwi farmer biosecurity has nothing to do with it. 

Andy McGrath calls himself the "father of cherries", having started importing varieties in the 1990s - many of which he says now form the backbone of today's cherry industry. 

But his innovation is about to take a huge hit. Pink markings on seedlings at his Cambridge nursery indicate a death sentence. 

The directive to kill or contain plants was ordered by MPI, aimed at any plants grown from cuttings or budwood imported from Clean Plant Center Northwest - citing biosecurity risk. 

But video obtained by Newshub from MPI's visit to Andy McGrath a month ago has officers saying the opposite. Mr McGrath filmed this because he anticipated needing it for evidence in court. 

Pink markings on seedlings at Andy McGrath's Cambridge nursery indicate a death sentence.
Pink markings on seedlings at Andy McGrath's Cambridge nursery indicate a death sentence. Photo credit: Newshub

"If there's a biosecurity risk - a genuine biosecurity risk - that's fine. We have to accept that's your perspective of it," the officer says. 

"So on that, we're treating it as a paperwork issue not a biosecurity issue. I think if we considered there to be a significant biosecurity risk we'd be treating this in a different way."

Newshub asked MPI on Friday to clarify why they'd issued this order that will potentially cost the industry a decade worth of growth, and millions of dollars, if it's only a paperwork issue.

"It can be difficult for some of our staff when they're out there interacting with growers who might be unhappy," says MPI Director Plants Food and Environment, Peter Thomson. "But MPI's always been very clear this is about biosecurity and managing biosecurity risks."

MPI maintains its audit of the American facility found failures in its testing, so it can't be sure that plant material imported from there is free of pests and diseases. 

But the American facility refutes that. In a letter obtained by Newshub, it says, "unfortunately, MPI investigators terminated the audit prematurely, and departed after only one full day at the facility."

It says MPI's public statements that they do not trust the clean plant centre's data is a "serious allegation, made without citation of evidence," and that such statements "undermine professionalism". 

It concludes that "MPI's failure to ensure that a complete and thorough audit was conducted renders many of their findings inaccurate". 

National horticultural spokesperson Lawrence Yule says MPI's actions risk destroying New Zealand's relationship with the facility and that would be devastating for the industry. 

"We rely on international relations, this is a first class institution in America," he said, which "supplied some of the best plant value to NZ and wonderful varieties. And they send a letter like that?"

But MPI is standing by its audit and its evidence. 

"We have evidence sufficient to suspend the facility... that evidence is about the inadequate and incomplete record-keeping of that facility," said Mr Thompson. 

The only virus that showed a weak positive test result in MPI testing of the imported material is cherry leaf roll virus. The same strain is already in New Zealand, so doesn't represent a biosecurity risk. 

Andy McGrath has until August 19 to destroy or contain his plants. He maintains there is no legal basis for the decision. 

Next week he's taking his fight to the High Court.