The high stakes involved in allowing imports of raw pork that might contain a potentially deadly pig disease could have meant agriculture officials took a more conservative approach, a judge has been told.
"Ultimately if the worst happens they will be the ones in the public eye who carry the can," deputy solicitor-general Cheryl Gwyn said in the High Court at Wellington yesterday.
But the New Zealand Pork Industry Board is criticising the role of agriculture officials in the decision to allow limited importations of what is expected to be cheaper raw pig meat from countries with porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.
It says the decision-making process went astray after an independent review panel reported on the scientific issues involved.
The board’s lawyer, Francis Cooke, QC, said the law obliged the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry director-general to decide disputed issues taking into account the panel’s findings and recommendations, as soon as reasonably practicable and give reasons for his decision.
Mr Cooke said that was not done and instead a different process was followed in which new information was gathered without giving the board a chance to comment on it.
The board should have been consulted on the new material because it was the linchpin of the ultimate decision, he said.
But Ms Gwyn, for the director-general, said the ministry officials’ role was to give the director-general the material to make a robust decision. The high stakes involved could have driven the officials to a more conservative approach because if the worst happened they would be the ones carrying the can, she said.
The ministry says the decision to allow consumer-ready raw pork cuts of up to 3kg was reached assessing the risk of infecting New Zealand animals – which it said was assessed as a one-in-1227-year chance – and our obligations as a trading nation.
Although much of the three-day court hearing this week was spent on the conflicting scientific views, the board’s main attack was on the process that led to the decision.
The disease does not affect humans. There is conflicting evidence about the chance of pigs being infected if they eat infected raw meat included in food scraps.