By Louisa Cleave

Premium apple stock developed by New Zealand has been discovered growing illegally in Chile - prompting allegations of international smuggling.

About 65,000 trees of the Sciros and Sciglo varieties, which produce Pacific Rose and Southern Snap apples, are believed to be sitting in Chilean nurseries.

New Zealand spent more than a decade developing the varieties, which have been a hit locally and overseas because of their taste, appearance and storage capabilities.

Now the Food and Fibre Minister, John Luxton, wants to know how the Chileans - major competitors in the multi-million-dollar apple trade - came to be growing our special trees.

Enza, the Apple and Pear Board's commercial arm, and HortResearch, the varieties' legal owner, are threatening legal action against Chile.

After a tip-off last year, Enza has moved to regain control of the varieties by placing advertisements in Chilean newspapers warning their growers and nurseries that it is unlawful to have the trees, which are protected by patent-like plant variety right laws, to which Chile is a signatory.

Any discovery the trees were grown with smuggled budwood could cause friction at this year's Apec meeting in Auckland, which Chile will attend.

Julian Raine, president of the Nelson Fruit Growers' Association and a grower of Pacific Rose, was not surprised by the news, given how open as an industry New Zealand was to overseas growers. "I would think someone has leapt a fence and taken some cuttings from an orchard shown to them."

In 1997 Chinese scientists were caught trying to smuggle cuttings of another protected apple variety from Auckland Airport.

Pipfruit Growers chairman Richard Easton said failure to defend New Zealand's exclusive rights to the apples would make a mockery of breeding programmes and all patented fruit, such as the new kiwifruit variety Zespri Gold.