Stormont officials are facing a grilling by Assembly Members over an embarrassing international incident in which potatoes exported from Northern Ireland were rejected for being diseased.
Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) representatives are due before their scrutiny committee tomorrow to be grilled over why 1,000 tonnes of Co Down spuds had to be destroyed in a North African port.
The diplomatic incident — dubbed “potatogate” by observers — in the Moroccan city of Nador in March 2010 saw Moroccan government plant health officials reject the cargo from Warrenpoint amid claims the goods were infected with the fungal disease silver scurf. Seed potatoes supplied by Holland, France and Scotland were also rejected.
The incident last March prompted counter-claims in Northern Ireland that the shipment — as Titanic’s shipbuilders at Harland & Wolff were once reputed to have said — was “all right when it left here”.
The mystery deepened when it emerged that Government inspectors had given the cargo the thumbs-up before it set sail.
Producers from the Ulster Potato Association were subsequently issued with an ultimatum from Morocco — take your spuds back or pay for them to be disposed of.
They chose the latter — at a cost of around £17,000 — but the final bill, when loss of earnings is factored in, is estimated to be in the region of £500,000.
Agriculture committee chair Paul Frew said steps had to be taken to ensure this could not happen again. “This was a hugely embarrassing incident and we need to get to the bottom of it,” said the DUP man.
Northern Ireland exports seed potatoes to many countries, including Portugal, Cyprus, Malta, England and the Republic of Ireland. At the time, then Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew said the rejection of the seed potatoes in Morocco had caused “considerable problems for local growers”.