Exports of tomatoes and capsicums have been suspended after the discovery of a debilitating bacterium in three North Island hot houses.
MAF Biosecurity has withdrawn phytosanitary certification for fresh tomato and capsicum exports until further notice and says it’s a significant find which could impact on export markets.
Total exports of tomatoes are valued at $7.3 million, while capsicums are worth $34m. Australia is the largest importer of the products, while Japan, the Pacific Islands, United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong are other capsicum markets. Those countries have been informed about the outbreak.
MAF director of border standards Tim Knox said the withdrawal of certification was a precautionary measure until more information about the bacterium was known.
“Initial findings suggest that the bacterium may be transmitted by a small insect called the tomato/potato psyllid.”
He said there were no considered human health issues associated with the bacterium or with eating tomatoes or capsicum. At this time of year exports of tomatoes and capsicum are negligible – they usually begin on a large scale in October. The bacterium affects both the growth and quality of plants and reduces yield.
Border incursions by pests and diseases pose an enormous risk to our economy but a lot of people don’t understand that and some who ought to, don’t care.
When I was coming home from Australia the airport x-ray picked up a jar. I told the MAF officer it was only hand cream but he said sorry, he had to check it. I said there was no need to apologise because I was from a farm and understood the importance of border security; he replied that meant nothing. The previous day he’d caught two farmers returning with muddy boots and they abused him when they were fined.
Not all infringements are deliberate. An Australian friend flew in to New Zealand with a pair of boots for his daughter who was working here. He forgot about them when he was filling in the MAF declaration form but they showed up on the x-ray and the MAF officer pulled them out for inspection. Rod had scrubbed the boots before he’d packed them and the MAF man said because of that he wouldn’t be fined but he did get a written warning that next time there’d be no leniency.
These examples ought to give us confidence in our border protection, but it isn’t always this strict. A couple of years ago a friend from the USA who had been on farms in Argentina came to New Zealand with work boots in his case. He too forgot to declare them and they weren’t picked up by MAF screening.
Unless everything in every bag is checked, there will always be an element of luck in whether or not something untoward comes in with a traveller, even if they pack carefully. We brought some wine home from Argentina and an insect crawled out of the bubble wrap as I was unpacking it. I cut it in half and burned it so no harm was done but it made me realise how easily something could come in by accident.
However, more worrying than missing something by chance is the experience of a friend who returned to New Zealand after shearing in Britain during the foot and mouth outbreak. He explained this when he showed his hand piece to the MAF inspectors but they weren’t at all concerned and the shearer had to persuade them to take his gear for cleaning.
Our borders have already been breeched by didymo, varroa bee mite and now this insect which is attacking the tomatoes and capsicums so fears that it’s a matter of when, rather than if, we face an incursion which infects farm animals are realistic.