Quite rightly, Government ministers are keen to emphasise the importance of safeguarding primary producers and the country's flora and fauna from the incursion of pests. "Protecting the integrity of New Zealand's biosecurity system is a top priority," the Primary Industries Minister, David Carter, said this year.

By and large, that message has been accepted and acted upon by a public well aware of the country's dependence on agricultural exports. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to have a similar confidence in either the detection of these foreign invaders or a consistent and efficient official response.

A decade ago, there was a particularly inept reaction to the incursion of the painted apple moth in West Auckland. Three years elapsed between the pest being detected and the start of aerial spraying. So poor was the operation that the Auditor-General declared it an example of poor management.

No one is suggesting at the moment that reviews of the response to the latest invader, a Queensland fruit fly found in a trap in Avondale a week ago, will reach a similar conclusion. But there are indications of flaws in what by now should be a well-rehearsed operation.


One major criticism has been the lack of indication of an emergency in the affected area. There appear, for example, to have been no signs around Avondale warning people and detailing the implications. Material handed out to those buying fruit and vegetables at the popular weekend market were in English only, leaving many unaware of the risk. It is difficult to find an excuse for this. Signs were rapidly put up along the Bay of Plenty coast after the Rena ran aground. This should have been considerably simpler.

Mr Carter's response to the criticism has been to defend the job being done by industry officials, and to insist that New Zealand's biosecurity controls are second to none. It is commendable that the male fruit fly was snared in a trap, one of 7500 that form part of the Ministry for Primary Industries' surveillance system. Equally, it is comforting that staff have intercepted the fruit fly at the border 53 times and prevented it becoming established. It has been detected in New Zealand only twice previously - in Northland in 1995 and Auckland in 1996 - and the threat has been nullified.

But Mr Carter would do well not to bang the drum too loudly. It is, after all, only 18 months since the Psa bacterium infiltrated the Bay of Plenty to pose a serious threat to kiwifruit vines. The fruit fly, which is sometimes equated to foot-and-mouth disease in the meat industry, is, potentially, far more dangerous.

It attacks most fruit and vegetables but especially citrus, berries and stone fruit. New Zealand exports more than $2.2 billion of fruit and vegetables a year, a sum significantly larger than that garnered from kiwifruit. The $130 million that the Australian horticulture industry spends annually trying to control the fruit fly speaks volumes for the risk. In that context, all stops must be pulled out to ensure this intrusion is dealt with urgently and efficiently.

The Prime Minister noted yesterday that the current operation was costing the country "millions". That illustrates the false economy inherent in any slackening of biosecurity safeguards at ports or airports. It may be impossible to stop every unwanted moth, mosquito, beetle or spider, but every reasonable precaution should be taken. The same applies to detection by surveillance, the second line of defence.

The people of New Zealand recognise this, as, to an even greater degree, do primary producers for whom the country's image is all-important. All the more reason, therefore, that Government ministers and their officials match their words with action.