Sandbar Citrus are preparing for a busy Murcott season.
Sandbar Citrus are preparing for a busy Murcott season. Felicity Ripper

Citrus Australia says smuggler got 'slap on the wrist'

CITRUS Australia has responded to an Australian resident's attempt to smuggle infected budwood into the country, saying it is extremely disappointed at the 'slap on the wrist' he was issued.

John Victor Bigg was fined $7000 for importing the prohibited item and providing false and misleading information to customs officers.

The citrus plant cutting tested positive to two viruses that could cause diseases in citrus and also contained insects.

CEO Nathan Hancock has expressed his sincere thanks to the customs officer who found the cutting but said it was disappointing the judge did not take the opportunity to issue a severe penalty as a warning to others.

"A fine of $7000 for importing a prohibited item and providing false and misleading information to customs officers is grossly inadequate when you consider the economic damage that could have occurred," Mr Hancock said.

"The citrus industry, working with Government departments and other bodies, is currently working to eradicate the exotic disease citrus canker from the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia.

"Whilst confident we will achieve our goal, the cost to eradicate this could be in the tens of millions of dollars and has severely disrupted several growers' lives in Kununurra and areas around Darwin."

Bigg had been returning from a holiday in the Philippines with his wife in May last year when he was questioned about his declaration of items that were a potential biosecurity risk.

Bigg originally told customs officers he had nothing to declare other than mango and avocado seeds, dried fish, snacks and shells.

After a fresh cumquat plant cutting was found concealed inside a tyre in Bigg's luggage, he then told customs officers he had intended to graft it onto a plant in his backyard, Brisbane Magistrates Court heard.

Biggs's defence counsel, Gavin Palk, said Bigg had hoped the cutting would not be discovered at Brisbane Airport.

He said Bigg was now extremely shameful and remorseful.

Magistrate Belinda Merrin said the two viruses which the plant tested positive for had a very real potential to cause very serious harm to the very industry that had employed Bigg for so long.

Mr Hancock said deliberate acts like this put the livelihoods of thousands of Australians working in rural and regional Australia at risk, and could decimate the $800 million dollar citrus industry.

Australians who now fail to declare plant or animal matter can receive fines up to $63,000 and up to five years in jail.

Mr Hancock has asked judges in future cases to set an example through far tougher penalties.