Forbidden fruit! Department of Agriculture film, 1950s

This 1955 Pictorial Parade film documents the work of the Department of Agriculture’s plant quarantine inspectors, five years before the creation of a standalone quarantine unit in 1960 with responsibility for both plant and animal quarantine. The film includes scenes from the quarantine fumigation plant in Wellington, where cargo consignments (including pianos!) were loaded into large vacuum cylinders for fumigation.

Fumigation is an old procedure, traditionally practiced aboard ships. Customs staff had provided ad hoc fumigation services but in 1899 the Department of Agriculture built fumigation sheds at the major ports. Chemical mixes varied according to threat but included substances such as sulphuric acid and cyanide of potassium. The main priority was to assure air-tightness. 

In the 1950s the department replaced the old sheds with vacuum chambers which could fumigate produce much faster and more effectively. These days government-owned fumigation stations are a distant memory. 

Private companies now compete to provide their services. At some ports timber is still wrapped and pumped full of the controversial methyl bromide. Smaller items are now fumigated within shipping containers. Steam sterilisation has replaced incineration at most ports due to air pollution concerns.

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