Northern Ireland

Committee grilled on 'embarrassing' potato rejection

Image caption The potatoes turned away by Moroccan officials were thought to have silver scurf.

The Department of Agriculture has been answering questions as to why a shipment of Northern Ireland potatoes was rejected by Morocco.

It is estimated the refusal to admit the seed potatoes could have cost local farmers over £500,000.

The 1,200 tonne shipment from Warrenpoint in January 2010 was rejected because of skin blemishes.

The chairman of the agriculture committee called the entire episode "embarrassing".

The committee discussed the matter at the assembly on Tuesday.

With annual shipments of up to 7,000 tonnes, Morocco is a valuable market for Northern Ireland seed potatoes.

Department of Agriculture officials inspected the potatoes before they left Northern Ireland, but the Moroccan authorities said too many of the potatoes had a skin blemish called silver scurf.

But spokesman Alan McCartney said the Department of Agriculture inspectors did their job properly by declaring the cargo fit for export.

"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," he said.

But the chairman of the agriculture committee, Paul Frew, said it had caused considerable damage to Northern Ireland's reputation.

"We cannot even put a figure on the damage it has done with regards to relationships, with regards to our credibility throughout the world," he said.

"At a time when the agriculture minister is trying to promote agri-foods , trying to push exports in this country, we have this embarrassment hanging over our heads."

The Department of Agriculture has rejected the committee's calls for the farmers to be compensated. It said there is no scheme for doing so.

The committee will now take the issue up with the Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill.