Agriculture officials were given a roasting yesterday over the destruction of more than 1,000 tonnes of Ulster potatoes in Morocco — at a cost to hard-pressed farmers of around £500,000.
Department experts were grilled by Assembly Members over the decision to allow the cargo of spuds from south Down to be destroyed in an embarrassing export row which has been dubbed ‘potatogate’.
Stormont’s agriculture scrutiny committee heard four other exporters whose potatoes were also rejected by the Moroccans — Holland, France, Belgium and Scotland — were able either to sell them on to other countries, or to take them back home.
Ulster Unionists Robin Swann and Jo-Anne Dobson criticised the lack of support given to local producers by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the committee urged permanent secretary Gerry Lavery to appear before members as soon as possible.
Producers from the Ulster Potato Association opted to have the potatoes disposed of — which carried a price tag of around £17,000.
But the overall cost was put at closer to £500,000 later, after loss of earnings was considered.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill said she was aware of the impact of the destruction of the potatoes — which were said to have excessive levels of ‘silver scurf’ — on Co Down businesses and farming families.
She said the rejection had been put down to a “difference in interpretation” of regulations.
The Sinn Fein minister said: “DARD believes that a different interpretation was put on what had consistently been the case in the past. My department has made strenuous efforts to attempt to bring this matter to a satisfactory resolution.”
December 2009/January 2010: Inspections, tests and sealing of the cargo carried out at Warrenpoint docks.
January 24: 1,050 tonnes of seed potatoes rejected by Moroccan officials.
Early February: consignment inspected by DARD official, who says it was “for the most part” in good condition.
March: Officials identify “excessive” levels of scurf disease on the shipment.