Latest CFIA update on potato wart: 30,000 soil samples and counting

Other than a short delay caused by post-tropical storm Fiona, CFIA soil samplers have been making steady progress. The agency has collected more than 30,000 samples, and could reach its target of 35,000 this fall before the ground freezes.

Agency says investigation has required more soil sampling and testing than any past investigation

CFIA says: "The ongoing investigation into the October 2021, February 2022 and July 2022 detections has required more soil sampling and testing than any past investigation." (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

Warm, dry fall weather helped the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to continue soil sampling for potato wart, other than a short delay because of post-tropical storm Fiona. 

CFIA posts a quarterly update on the investigation into potato wart, and the latest report from October shows the agency has now collected almost 30,000 samples, and analyzed almost 20,000 of them.

"We were very fortunate this fall, aside from the hurricane, that we had really favourable conditions, so we've been at full capacity," said Gord Henry, national manager for CFIA's potato and forestry section.

"We'll be able to collect samples until the freeze-up of the ground, and we might be able to complete almost all of them."

Investigation continues

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the export of fresh P.E.I. potatoes to the United States and its territory of Puerto Rico following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields.

Potato wart is a fungus that disfigures potatoes so that they are unmarketable, and reduces yields, but poses no health risk to humans. 

That decision brought to a sudden halt exports that are usually worth about $120 million per year to the P.E.I. economy. The investigation has been ongoing since then.

"We've moved through the the highest risk field categories in our sampling, and a large number of them have been completed," Henry said. 

There was one potato wart detection in the quarterly update. It was reported in a field in July 2022, in a field adjacent to one where the fungus had been found in October 2021.

At the time, the agency said the detection was not unexpected because of the proximity to the previous discovery. 

The latest report from October 2022 shows the agency has now collected almost 30,000 samples and analyzed almost 20,000 of them. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Members of an international advisory panel visited Prince Edward Island in August as part of its research into the status of potato wart in the province. 

The panel is made up of five scientists from New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands, all with experience in potato wart research.

"The most important thing about inviting experts to review our situation is to really gain experience from how potato wart is managed in in other countries" Henry said. 

"Potato wart is found in many countries in Europe and they've been dealing with it for over 100 years. So it's really trying to learn the things that worked well in their countries, to see if they'd be applicable and feasible to be used in P.E.I."

CFIA said the panel's report is expected at the end of the year. 

These are soil samples at the CFIA lab in Charlottetown. The agency hired approximately 70 new staff to increase capacity for sampling and analysis. (Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

Report raising red flags

A draft report from the United States Department of Agriculture's agency — the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) — was made public in October, as part of a consultation process south of the border. 

It examines the ways that potato wart could potentially be introduced into the United States from P.E.I., through seed potatoes, potatoes for consumption and soil.

While some industry groups in the United States have been raising red flags over the findings, Greg Donald of the P.E.I. Potato Board said it's important to understand the premise of the report.

"It was a report that is very specific, in my understanding, to identify the risk pathways with this pathogen, assuming that there are no risk mitigation measures put in place," Donald said.

"It would be up to the regulators to ensure that the proper measures are put in place."

Greg Donald of the P.E.I. Potato Board says the board is pleased by the progress in soil sampling this fall. (Shane Hennessey/CBC )

CFIA's next quarterly update will be posted in early January 2023, and the agency said it will have at least 35,000 samples analyzed by end of March 2023.

It said it will continue to analyze any additional samples as needed, beyond the initial 35,000. 

"Certainly the border closure, and the series of events that happened last year, are still fresh in every farmer's mind," Donald said.

"We want to continue to restore confidence in the marketplace, and and therefore confidence for our farmers here on P.E.I."

Seed potatoes, which make up about 10 per cent of the Island's annual output, are still banned in the U.S. and the rest of Canada, pending the outcome of the investigation.


Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.