New Zealand wins WTO appeal over Australia apple ban

GENEVA, Nov 29 (Reuters) - Australia's 90-year-old restrictions on imports of New Zealand apples are unscientific and break international trade rules, the World Trade Organisation's top court ruled on Monday.

The victory for New Zealand should allow it to resume apple exports for the first time since 1921 to its biggest trading partner and clear the way for sales to other markets where its fruit is also banned.

The WTO's appellate body largely upheld the findings of a panel of experts in August that condemned the restrictions, which New Zealand says amount effectively to a ban on its fruit, and called on Australia to bring its regulations into line with international trade rules.

Like many disputes about trade in food, this one turned on health and safety standards. Australia imposed the restrictions in 1921 to protect local apple trees from fire blight, a pest that also affects pear trees and rose bushes.

But New Zealand argued that the restrictions, revised in 2006, were unscientific, a view backed by the original WTO panel which did not find in favour of New Zealand on all counts.

Australia said it was appealing that ruling to protect Australian agriculture from health risks.

New Zealand officials estimate that lifting the Australian ban could boost apple exports by NZ$30 million over two to three years from NZ$400 million in 2009 - good news for New Zealand producers such as Turners & Growers.

A recent study by Malcolm Bosworth and Greg Cutbrush, two visiting fellows at the Australian National University's Crawford School of Economics and Government, found that the ban had driven up the price of apples for Australian consumers.

The study, backed by New Zealand's apple growers' association, Pipfruit, said Australia had the second most expensive apples in the world, after Japan, and the restrictions had effectively transferred A$2 billion to Australian growers from consumers between 2001/02 and 2007/08.

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