P.E.I. emphasizes urgency of lifting fresh potato trade suspension in 'positive' Ottawa meeting

Federal and provincial officials met in Ottawa Thursday to discuss how to move forward amid the suspension of fresh potato exports from P.E.I. to the U.S.

Officials discussed timeline of suspension, and possible exemption for Puerto Rico

P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson was in Ottawa to discuss the potato wart situation with federal officials, including his counterpart, Marie-Claude Bibeau. They were joined by the Island's four MPs. (Lawrence MacAulay/Twitter)

Federal and provincial officials met in Ottawa Thursday to discuss how to move forward amid the suspension of fresh potato exports from P.E.I. to the U.S.

Provincial Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson met with federal counterpart Marie-Claude Bibeau along with the Island's four MPs, industry representatives and officials from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to talk about the trade ban.

The CFIA issued the suspension in November after the discovery of potato wart on two of the Island's fields in October.

Thompson said the meeting was "positive" even though no timeline was established for lifting the ban.

"We got a lot of answers," he said. "We really emphasized the urgency, and the president of CFIA came up to me after the meeting and really emphasized how she now gets the importance of a timeline of to get this resolved.

"We left on a very positive note that we are going to hopefully in the next few weeks, we do have a timeline."

Thompson said Bibeau and the MPs showed they were engaged on the issue and working hard to get it resolved.

"I think we all left the meeting with more optimism," said Heath MacDonald, Liberal MP for Malpeque. 

"Today's meeting did a lot to give everyone around that table ... a better insight to the process and protocols that have been put in place over the number of years and how they have worked."

MacDonald said he hopes the optimism carries over to a meeting between the CFIA and the United States Department of Agriculture on Friday. 

The federal government said the suspension was issued to prevent a U.S. ban, which would be more difficult to reverse.

"CFIA has to believe in the process that has been in place, and you know the management plan has been there," MacDonald said. "The other side of it is too the P.E.I. Potato Board and those farmers are telling us what we need to do, what changes we need today. And we'll do it."

Puerto Rico exemption

The potato wart fungus is spread through the movement of infected seed potatoes and contaminated soil. It poses no threat to human health or food safety, but is known to decrease yield. (CBC)

McDonald said some of the issues brought to the table were making sure there were no more impediments to inter-provincial exports, and the possibility of a ban exemption for Puerto Rico.

The U.S. territory is a key market for P.E.I. potatoes.

"I actually had a call this morning with my counterpart in Puerto Rico," Thompson said. "They want our product and they need our product."

But Thompson said any exemption will rely heavily on co-operation from the U.S. government.

"A lot of this lies on the U.S. and all we can do is to continue to prove that the science is there, you know, that the potatoes are good," MacDonald said. 

"We're doing everything possible from the provincial level to the federal level to the farmer level, to the potato board marketing level. Everyone is on the same page, and we're pushing this envelope as hard as we can push it."

Thompson, who has also been meeting with Island farmers, said the industry needs a solution soon.

"It's a real struggle out there," he said. "They're frustrated with the unknowns and, you know, you can't even tell them when this could be over or what they're going to do with their product.

"It's unbelievably stressful financially, and these are business people that are trying to make business plans and they just have no path forward right now."

With files from Wayne Thibodeau


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