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5 September 1997
The Ministry of Agriculture has restated its commitment to pursue and - if caught - prosecute those involved in the illegal importation of the rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) original source virus and its initial spread.
On the basis of recently obtained legal advice, MAF may also consider on a case by case basis the prosecution of persons who were involved in the deliberate spread of the virus with the intention of ensuring that its distribution reached a point where containment was not practicable.
Since its communications last week regarding offences under the Biosecurity Act 1993, MAF has received advice from the Crown Law Office regarding the extent to which a section from the Animals Act 1967 can be applied to the situation. The Animals Act was largely repealed by the Biosecurity Act, but section 21 still applies to some organisms. On the basis of the Crown Law Office advice, those involved in the on-going spread of the virus are breaking the law. This advice is consistent with the legal advice obtained by the Canterbury Regional Council.
Like all enforcement agencies, MAF has a discretion as to whether to prosecute. The decision whether or not to prosecute depends on a number of factors, including the adequacy of evidence, how that evidence was obtained, and a number of public interest factors, such as the importance of deterring the conduct alleged to have occurred.
In MAF's view, a distinction can and should be drawn between the person or persons involved in the importation and initial spread of the virus, and those involved in
subsequent spread, after it had been replicated in New Zealand rabbits, and became established over a wide area.
Given the circumstances - in particular, the number of people involved and the likelihood of gathering sufficient evidence to take a successful prosecution - the Ministry has decided to continue to focus its investigative efforts on those who were involved in the importation and initial spread of the virus.
MAF believes its stance on this matter is consistent with the purpose of the Biosecurity Act. Under the provisions of that Act, it is not an offence to spread an unwanted organism, provided it is not the original illegally imported item and is not taken from within a Controlled Area.
The Ministry saved a considerable amount of time, effort and money - possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars - by obtaining information about the extent of spread directly from the farmers instead of having to glean it from extensive and costly surveillance and monitoring. The continued cooperation of farmers is vital if important epidemiological information is to be gathered from the field.
Considerable effort and resources continue to be devoted to investigating who imported the virus and was involved in its importation and initial spread. MAF Enforcement Unit officers report that they are following a number of leads but are unable to be more specific at this stage.
Media inquiries to:
Bruce Ross, Director-General, (04)474 4231/(04)499 0941-hm
Geoff Daniels, Assistant Manager, Legal Services, (04)474 4214/(04)479 2775