26 January 1996

Brown rot found

MAFF has confirmed that brown rot has "almost certainly" been found in a consignment of Dutch seed potatoes in Cornwall.

The suspected case, found in MAFF tests after import, was part of a 90t consignment of first early variety Minerva delivered to the region before and after Christmas.

The disclosure prompted the Potato Marketing Board to call on MAFF to tighten inspection checks and consider a ban on the import of Dutch seed potatoes.

Alasdair Fairbairn, PMB chief executive, said the Board was particularly concerned, as the consignment of potatoes had passed through Dutch inspection and testing. "It demonstrates that these procedures are not protecting the UK potato industry," he added.

Asking for action

PMB chairman John Heading has written to farm minister, Douglas Hogg, asking for action.

"The suspected infection, combined with the continued spread of the disease in Holland, convinced the board that a total ban on the import of seed potatoes from Holland should now be seriously considered.

"The board also considered that current inspection procedures in the UK and Holland for ware potatoes and processing material should be tightened or that material banned until new inspection procedures can be introduced."

Mr Heading said such measures were justified because of the considerable threat the disease presented to the reliability of supplies to consumers as well as the profitability and reputation of the UK potato industry.

Twelve early potato growers in the Cornish region, who have taken delivery of the seed, must wait for the results before they can plant, said Dominic Guindy, seed import manager for agent Caithness Classified Crops, which handled the seed.

But MAFF officials suggested the growers may have to wait longer. "Even if the test is negative we would want to know why the first set of tests showed a positive result," said a spokesman.

If brown rot is confirmed, a delay of up to three weeks to deliver and chit replacement seed is likely, Mr Guindy admitted. That may mean growers will miss the lucrative early markets. "We would be prepared to talk to them about this," he added.

A delay between delivery and retesting has not helped, said a grower spokesman. Seed was delivered before Christmas but was not checked by MAFF until three weeks later.

MAFF said that was the time it took to confirm brown rot, and seed, delivered to farms, is held under statutory license until cleared to plant.

Mr Guindy has "three or four more lorry loads" of Minerva to import. But with the suspected farm now under quarantine until tests are completed, these will be sourced from another grower.