I am aware that the bacterium responsible for causing brown rot in potatoes has been found in water samples from parts of the Lunan Burn, and the Isla and Tay Rivers in Perthshire. However, extensive sampling of potato tubers irrigated from the contaminated rivers has confirmed that the infection has been confined to the watercourses. The Scottish Executive have assured me that the Scottish potato crop is completely free of brown rot.
Brown rot has never been found in Northern Ireland, but the possibility of its spreading here cannot be ruled out. My Department is taking all preventative measures permissible under EU rules so that brown rot does not spread to Northern Ireland, and it will continue to take all possible steps to prevent the introduction of quarantine pests and diseases, including brown rot.
As the Minister indicated, Northern Ireland has never had brown rot. It is a disease that we do not want to infect our potato crops. I would like her to ensure that the Department ensures that no samples are allowed into Northern Ireland containing any disease, as washings of those potatoes could get into our water system, and thus contaminate the entire crop and do substantial damage to the Northern Ireland potato industry.
I think that I have already answered that question. The Plant Health Directive places the onus of plant health control on the country of origin, which in this case is Scotland. It allows the importing country to carry out sample checks. I have recently spoken to our scientists who are dealing with the situation and I have been assured that sample checks are being carried out regularly.
Furthermore, the brown rot Directive specifies detailed measures that all member states must implement in order to control and prevent the disease. It outlines a number of control measures to be taken to contain and eradicate infection should an outbreak occur. I have been assured by the Scottish Rural Affairs Department that the required measures are in hand.
There is enormous concern, particularly in my own constituency of South Down, about any remote possibility of this disease getting into Northern Ireland. Can the Minister confirm that it is within European regulations to test all imported potatoes coming through Larne or any other Northern Ireland port? Can she assure us that every batch of potatoes coming into the Province is being thoroughly tested for this disease?
As I have said, sample checks are being carried out. It might not be possible to check every single potato coming into the country, but sample checks are carried out regularly to ensure that brown rot does not come in. The Scottish Rural Affairs Department has assured me that it has been found in the water but not in the potatoes. It has taken all measures required of it under European regulations to ensure that contaminated water is not used for irrigation or for spraying of either potatoes or tomatoes.
The Minister has said that there has never been brown rot in Northern Ireland. I have requested a meeting with her and her officials on this issue. There is genuine concern. We have never had this problem, and we certainly do not want the possibility of there being a problem added to BSE and the many other problems within the farming industry. Can the Minister assure me that not only is the onus on the country of origin but that she and her Department take the matter very seriously? Any brown rot coming into this country could wipe out another part of our vital farming industry at this perilous time.
I can assure the Member that I am treating the matter seriously. I took the trouble to discuss it with the scientists in the Department as recently as last week. I am aware of it as an issue. I am aware of the difficulties it would create. As far as anyone can humanly guarantee anything, we cannot rule out the possibility. For that reason, all the precautions I have outlined, both those assured by the Scottish Executive and those that we are doing ourselves, are being taken to ensure that brown rot does not enter the Northern Ireland crop.
Does the Minister not think it advisable for her officials to go to the country of origin to see if those European regulations are being strictly adhered to? The concern among farmers is that they may not be, and, if there is only limited testing here, that opens a door. No one can tell what will happen if that door is opened. It could be the destruction of the potato industry in Northern Ireland for ever.
It is not part of our responsibility, and it might be taken ill by the Scottish Executive if we were to send over our officials to see if they were doing their job properly. I will have to take the word of the Scottish Executive, and they have informed me that the issue is being dealt with. A watercourse is contaminated, but there is no potato rot. Every precaution has been taken to ensure that water from that watercourse is not used for irrigation or spraying until it is declared clear.