NVWA says it has 'illegal' infections of ToBRFV in sight

The Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) is taking extra measures to combat Tomato brown rugose fruit virus (ToBRFV). There is 'higher virus pressure' at several growing locations, reports the watchdog based on inspections.

This greatly increases the risk of spreading to surrounding farms. The measures focus on companies with higher virus pressure and those that illegally infect plants with ToBRFV intentionally, known as cross-protection. The NVWA says it has indications that, despite an earlier warning not to mess with the virus, this is still happening.

The aim of the additional phytosanitary measures is to reduce the virus pressure, thereby reducing the chances of ToBRFV spreading. The NVWA will take enforcement action against companies that keep, propagate, trade the virus, or deliberately infect plants with ToBRFV. This is because the NVWA suspects that the higher virus pressure on farms is partly caused by deliberately infecting plants with ToBRFV. Growers hope this will limit the damage from other variants of ToBRFV. Last year, the NVWA already warned growers not to apply cross-protection. Exactly one year later, this new warning follows.

Quarantine status
The virus, which is harmless to humans, has a Q status in the European Union. ToBRFV is a virus harmful to some plants, that can infect tomatoes, peppers, and chili, among others. Since November 2019, temporary emergency measures are in place in the EU to prevent the spread of the virus. It is mandatory to prevent the introduction and spread of ToBRFV and eliminate the virus. The agent used in cross-protection contains a variant of ToBRFV. Application of an agent containing a quarantine organism is not allowed.

NVWA warns again: do not infect deliberately
Last year, the NVWA already warned not to apply cross-protection. However, the NVWA has indications that this is still happening. Indeed, during inspections at several infected farms, the NVWA found the ToBRFV variant from the illegal cross-protection agent. Using the substance is not only prohibited, it also poses risks to the user and surrounding farms, the watchdog says. Therefore, the NVWA again urges growers not to intentionally infect plants with ToBRFV. The NVWA has suspicions that companies have intentionally infected their plants and will take enforcement action.

Use of cross-protectant not without risk
According to the producer, the substance contains a mild variant of the virus. This claim is not supported by (scientific) evidence. The NVWA has previously pointed this out to growers. The substance, like other variants of the virus, causes damage to plants. Applying cross-protection increases the virus pressure within a farm site. That is, more virus is present. It, therefore, becomes more difficult to eliminate the virus on site. In addition, the risk increases that neighboring farms, such as young plant breeders and seed production farms, will bear the brunt and unintentionally become infected with ToBRFV.

The cross-protectant is a non-authorized crop protection agent. This means that the drug has not been assessed and authorized by the Board for the Authorisation of Plant Protection Products and Biocides (Ctgb). The Ctgb assesses crop protection products on effectiveness and risks for humans, animals, and the environment. This was not done for this drug, so the effectiveness and risks are unknown.

Criminal investigation
Last year, the NVWA completed a criminal investigation into the suspected producer of the cross-protection agent and some companies that deliberately infected their plants. The file has been handed to the Office of the Public Prosecutor. The NVWA has indications that the suspected producer of the substance has not stopped producing and selling it. The NVWA has started a new enforcement investigation.

In Flanders too, the authorities acted late last year following suspicions about the illegal infection of plants with the virus. It generated a media storm as the news was picked up nationwide. This new NVWA notice has also been picked up by national media.

According to the latest official figures, the Netherlands has 41 ToBRFV infections. The figures have not been updated since June 2022. In Flanders, there are at least 15 infections.

Source: NVWA

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