AGRICULTURE minister Michelle O’Neill will be asked to give her support to a bid for compensation for the Northern Ireland potato growers left out of pocket after a major shipment of seed potatoes was rejected by Morocco early last year.
DARD officials were questioned by the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee at Stormont on Tuesday who then agreed to write to the minister seeking her help, and that of the province’s three MEPs, in lobbying the European Union for compensation for the loss which is understood to be in the region of £500,000.
They also sought an urgent meeting with DARD permanent secretary Gerard Lavery to address the matter.
The 1,200 tonne shipment from Warrenpoint in January 2010 was rejected at the Moroccan port of Nador because of skin blemishes, specifically Silver Scurf.
Department of Agriculture officials inspected the potatoes before they left Northern Ireland and they were within the standards set out by the Moroccan authorities.
Northern Ireland was not alone in having a consignment of seed potatoes rejected by Morocco as Scotland, Holland, Belgium and France also saw significant consignments turned away – however these countries made alternative arrangements either by recalling the cargo or selling it elsewhere.
The Ulster Potato Association opted to have the cargo disposed of at a cost of around £17,000.
Spokesman Alan McCartney said the department’s inspectors did their job properly by declaring the cargo fit for export.
He said: “Our senior inspector, who was in Morocco the following week, inspected the consignment of potatoes and found them all largely to be within tolerance and that was despite the time lag there had been from the last inspection over in Warrenpoint dock.”
Mr McCartney and his colleague Jim Crummie informed the committee that the Moroccan authorities had introduced a new dimension to their inspection where they washed the consignment and then determined a higher level of Silver Scurf.
“The issue lies with the Moroccan Plant Authority and the previously unnotified changes to their procedures,” Mr McCartney added.
Committee members voiced their concern that farmers had been left out of pocket, however their appeals for compensation from the department were rejected by the officials as there is no scheme in place.
UUP MLAs Jo-Anne Dobson and Robin Swann quizzed the officials over their duty of care to farmers, with Mrs Dobson adding: “There is a growing perception that if you get into trouble the department leaves you to pick up the pieces.”
DUP MLA Tom Buchanan warned that lessons must be learned from this experience.