23 November 2001
UK to lose rhizomania-free status

By FWi staff

THE UK will lose its rhizomania-free status when it is reviewed by the European Commission next January, the government has warned.

A spate of rhizomania outbreaks which have hit sugar beet growers are set to cost the UK its disease-free status, ministers believe.

Anticipating this, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has launched an consultation document to consider the options.

It will not be possible to retain protected zone status for the whole of the UK when it is reviewed by the EC next January, it says.

If disease-free status is lost, potatoes, nursery stock and other soil-bearing material would be allowed into the UK from infected countries.

A wide range of exports would be refused by disease-free countries, while other states would insist on expensive tests before admitting them.

Sixty-nine new cases of the soil-borne disease, which causes beet yields to plummet and reduces sugar content, have been recorded in 2001.

This is double the previous record and it seems certain that the European Commission will withdraw the rhizomania disease-free status.

Options include removing disease-free status altogether or retaining a limited disease-free zone, excluding Norfolk and Suffolk.

Efforts would continue to eradicate the disease in these counties under a timescale, with the hope that they could in time be declared disease-free.

The UK has fought hard to retain its disease-free status with strict controls, including aerial surveys of at risk areas.

British Sugar operations director Karl Carter fears Defra may be giving up on nationwide disease-free status simply to cut costs.

But a Defra spokeswoman insisted that this was not the case.

Last month, Mr Carter rejected claims that tolerant varieties would solve the problem, as their yields will fall if rhizomania spreads widely.

Farmers, who want disease-free status maintained, warn that the disease could be the arable equivalent of foot-and-mouth disease if it takes hold.

A total of 211 farms, covering 7000ha 1% of the beet area are known to be infected within the UK.