Tomato producers investigated for unauthorised virus research

Tomato producers investigated for unauthorised virus research
Credit: Belga / Aline Brugmans

Four people have been arrested and a “large sum of money” seized in an investigation into the activities of a tomato grower in Rijkevorsel in Antwerp province, as well as two homes in Beerse and Kapelle, both also in Antwerp province.

The four are suspected of breaking the rules on plant experimentation by releasing a virus without authorisation and without adequate protection, in an attempt to develop a vaccine to protect tomato plants.

While the ultimate aim may be the protection of highly commercial plants against disease, there are strict procedures to be followed in such research, with the aim of protecting other plants that may be affected.

The investigation was carried out, and the arrests made, by a team from the Antwerp police and the federal agency for protection of the food chain (FAVV).

Strict regulations control production

"It is being investigated whether those involved have also applied the harmful virus to the tomatoes themselves to make them resistant to the virus," said Kristof Aerts, spokesperson for the Antwerp public prosecutor's office. "It's all strictly regulated, and the rules wouldn't have been followed closely." The so-called vaccine contains a mild variant of the virus itself.”

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However, he explained, the virus, known as ToBRFV, presents no danger to the public, and only affects certain plant sorts. These include not only tomatoes, but also peppers. The virus presents no danger to humans or animals; only other plants, so the risk is entirely financial.

However, the VRT explained, the virus can be spread by humans, without them suffering any risk to their own health, in seeds, plants and fruits of the plants. That means that plant grown in one locality can end up infecting other plants elsewhere, for example when they are brought together in the supermarket chain.

An investigation is currently underway in the Netherlands into similar virus research carried out there.

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