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EU gets serious on beetle threat following lobbying by NFU


European officials have decided to press ahead with measures to prevent the spread of a species of beetle which could deal a devastating blow to the UKs potato industry.

The EU standing committee has concluded that the Epitrix potato flea beetle poses a serious risk to the industry and is expected to introduce emergency measures in a bid to prevent it spreading from Spain and Portugal.

It comes after the NFU lobbied on behalf of the UK potato industry for action to be taken. Experts predict that if the beetle does reach these shores, it could wipe 40million from the market every year while it would be impossible to eradicate and costly to control.

NFU potatoes adviser Laura Drew said: We first became aware of the Epitrix potato flea beetle in spring 2010 and quickly realised the real and serious nature of this pest.  Since then the NFU has been coordinating industry efforts and raising awareness with UK and EU supply chain organisations to lobby for emergency legislation to prevent it from spreading. 

The beetle can have a devastating effect on potato crops: adult beetles feed on foliage and the damage caused can depress yields and reduce tuber quality.  Perhaps even more concerning are the effects from larvae feeding activity, which produce unsightly wavy furrow marks on the surface of the tubers. Clearly, this type of defect would not be acceptable within the UK supply chain, which operates to world-leading standards.

NFU potato forum vice chairman Alex Godfrey said: This is a really positive development and is testament to the hard work put in by NFU staff and potato forum members. Its a great example of how the NFU can show leadership in working with a government agency and other stakeholders, to achieve a result that is to the advantage of the industry as a whole.

A working party has been organised for September this year to develop draft proposals based on the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organisations Pest Risk Assessment. It is hoped that this will include the washing and brushing of all potatoes being moved from infested areas, an improved system for identifying consignments and a requirement for surveys in all member states.  

In the interim period, the supply chain is urged to notify the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA), and equivalent plant health services, when introducing potatoes from Spain and Portugal. Full details about how to participate in the voluntary notification scheme for the pest can be found here. This information will be used to help build an evidence base and to enable targeted inspections for the pest. 

Importers are also advised to start discussing this issue with their suppliers, to build in suitable safeguards prior to export, particularly washing or brushing. Retailers are also encouraged to review their specifications for potatoes from infested areas, particularly to ensure freedom from soil. 

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