Class action against New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) surrounding the outbreak of Psa-V in 2010 got underway in Wellington today (7 August).
The Kiwifruit Claim, a group representing 212 members of New Zealand’s kiwifruit sector, has alleged MPI was negligent in its duty to shield the industry from the vine-killing disease. The group is seeking close to NZ$400m (US$297m) in damages.
The Kiwifruit Claim’s argument is built around a permit to import kiwifruit pollen in 2009 from China. The group has alleged MPI acted carelessly when issuing the permit, following persistent warnings about the outbreak of a virulent strain of Psa in Italy.
“That shipment was in fact 4.5kg of pollen, anthers and other plant material from Shaanxi Province in China,” Kiwifruit Claim chairman, John Cameron, said.
“MPI’s internal procedures require nursery stock to be quarantined and inspected. MPI either failed to realise that the Shaanxi shipment was not pure pollen, or did not inspect it at all.”
Cameron said the shipment was approved and immediately transported to Te Puke, before being processed into pollen by a commercial operator. Between 3-4kg of plant material was then “somehow disposed of.”
“Once Psa was in the country, there was no way it could be contained,” Cameron added. “The claimants have DNA scientific evidence that the strain of PSA, which led to the outbreak in New Zealand, matches almost identically Psa from Shaanxi Province.”
MPI staff told media outlets they would not be making any substantive comment while the case is pending, however, the department has adamantly denied the allegations levelled against it.
“The Ministry acted appropriately in its treatment of Psa-V as a biosecurity threat and acted in accordance with its international obligations and with scientific knowledge available at the time,” MPI said on its website.
“MPI did not “let” Psa into the country by allowing pollen imports to New Zealand. Various studies are inconclusive as to exactly how the bacterium entered New Zealand."
MPI also claimed that any liability on the Crown for losses as a result of a biosecurity incursion is covered by a statutory compensation scheme, with a NZ$25m (US$18.5m) assistance scheme offered to growers after the outbreak in 2010.
The Kiwifruit Claim is being supported by litigation funding specialist LPF Group. Members of the group include leading Australasian fresh produce firm Seeka and growing company Strathboss.
The High Court case has been scheduled to run over the next 12 weeks.