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Pork Import Battle Goes to Court

01 August 2011

NEW ZEALAND - The country's pig producers are going to court later this month to try to prevent imports of pork which, they say, present a significant risk of bringing PRRS into the country which is still free of the disease.

New Zealand's pig farmers are heading to court in a last-ditch effort to keep New Zealand pigs free of a devastating Aids-like virus, according to Sunday Star Times.

The case, to be heard in August, will pitch the Ministry of Agriculture's disease modelling against that of Massey University. The ministry argues the risk of the virus finding its way into the local pig herd is small but the Massey study indicates the risk is very real. The virus does not affect humans.

The ministry is pushing for the change to ensure New Zealand complies with its agreement with the World Trade Organisation, court documents show.

New Zealand is one of the very few countries in the world free of the virus, porcine reproductive respiratory syndrome (PRRS), along with Australia and a couple of European countries.

Eric Neuman, a senior lecturer in pig medicine and epidemiology at Massey University, said that was a real luxury as the virus causes respiratory illnesses, abortions and the death of piglets. It is difficult to eradicate once it establishes itself.

Dr Neuman, who will give evidence for the pork industry by affidavit in the case, said both sides agree that fresh meat will contain the virus, but the issue is how much, and how much will survive into the food chain.

The virus can be transmitted when pigs are fed leftover pig meat and, once a pig is infected, it can be transmitted by air.

The major danger is from the number of 'backyard pigs' in New Zealand being fed food scraps, Dr Neuman said.

The practice is regulated in New Zealand but compliance with those requirements is not high.

The ministry said the hearing is scheduled for 24 August.

"The decision to issue import health standards for the importation of uncooked pork from countries with PRRS was made after an extensive assessment of biosecurity risk, which included a detailed review of the available science, consultation with stakeholders, and an independent review panel," it said in a statement.

"Maf concluded that the risk of PRRS introduction via pork imports will be effectively managed by the measures outlined in the import health standards.

"These measures include restricting imports of fresh uncooked pork to cuts that have the lymph nodes removed and weigh no more than 3kg."

Sunday Star Times reports that the debate has Australian pig farmers – and politicians – worried. Any New Zealand shift to allow fresh meat imports could give countries with PRRS the ability to mount a challenge against Australia through the World Trade Organisation, industry web site reports.

Australian Liberal Party senator Bill Heffernan, Greens senator Christine Milne and National senator John Williams have spoken out against the move. South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon said Australia's disease-free reputation is worth billions and could be lost at the stroke of a pen.

In an application in May for a judicial review in the High Court at Wellington, the New Zealand Pork Industry Board argued that the ministry's planned change would likely result in the introduction of PRRS and that the ministry's process in making its decision was flawed. The board won an interim order to prevent the implementation of the new standard.

The Crown argued that the case against the change was weak and said the decision-making process was exhaustive. It said research showed the prospect of the disease being introduced was one in 1,227 years.

'The Crown is also concerned that the relief sought would be inconsistent with New Zealand's international obligations under the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures,' the interim judgement says.

The judgement quotes Dr David Lawton, a pig veterinarian, describing PRRS as 'the most devastating and important pig disease globally'.

Dr Lawton said the virus would infect New Zealand's herd within a year or two of significant importation of consumer-ready cuts. He said it was a "horrible disease that causes much animal suffering" as well as economic impact, concludes the Sunday Star Times report.

TheMeatSite News Desk

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