Claims of Sabotage Dismissed in Fire Blight Debate

20 May 1997

The Ministry of Agriculture has dismissed Australian suggestions that the finding of fire blight in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens by a New Zealand scientist might be sabotage.

MAF's Chief Plants Officer Richard Ivess said there was no doubt that the discovery by HortResearch scientist Dr Chris Hale was genuine and legitimate. "Dr Hale is a highly reputable and respected scientist and world expert in fire blight, whose interest is purely scientific."

Mr Ivess said it appeared some sectors in Australia were attempting to turn what was a scientific and technical issue into a political one.

In answer to calls from some quarters across the Tasman for Dr Hale to face legal action, Mr Ivess queried on what grounds this could be taken. "The only thing he did which might be remotely unlawful was to prune a few centimetres of dead wood from a common cotoneaster in a botanic garden. I wonder how many other people have taken healthy clippings from much rarer trees to plant in their gardens.

"To try to charge him for that would be like charging someone for double parking when they've stopped to assist at an accident," Mr Ivess said. "The Australians should be grateful that someone who is an expert in this disease spotted it so that they can now take steps to control or eradicate it."

He added that Dr Hale broke no New Zealand laws, because he declared the plant material to MAF's Quarantine Service officers as soon as he stepped off the plane.

Dr Hale, who was on holiday at the time took samples from trees which he believed showed symptoms of classic fire blight and brought them back to New Zealand for tests, which proved positive. The find took Australia by surprise, because it has declared that it is free of the disease and does not accept apple exports from New Zealand, a country which does have the disease.

Despite strong positive results in New Zealand, the Australian tests had shown less conclusive results. Mr Ivess said this was probably because the bacteria which cause fire blight become dormant during the winter, making it much more difficult to isolate them.

Mr Ivess said following the Melbourne results, he was in Adelaide on other business and on 11 May had taken a clipping himself from a cotoneaster in the botanic gardens with fire blight-like symptoms. He had informed the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and with their consent had brought this clipping back to New Zealand for tests, which showed signs of the disease but were in conclusive. Australian officials also took samples from the Adelaide botanic gardens for their own tests, the results of which are not yet known in New Zealand.

Media inquiries to:
Richard Ivess, Chief Plants Officer (04) 474 4127
Debbie Gee, Manager, Corporate Communications (04) 474 4258



Last Updated: 08 September 2010

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