New Zealand is seeking a ruling from the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on whether tough Australian sanitary rules on imports of apples break global trading rules, a WTO document showed.

New Zealand’s repeated call for a WTO panel in the dispute is a rare example of a row that could not be resolved quietly between the two neighbors, both of whom have strict controls on imports of foodstuffs to protect their island agricultures.

“We don’t think the measures they’ve put in place are scientifically justified,” Tony Lynch, deputy head of New Zealand’s WTO mission, told Reuters. “What we’re after is meaningful commercial access.”

Australia rejected New Zealand’s previous call for a panel last month, saying talks between the two countries were the best way to settle the dispute, their first at the WTO.

New Zealand Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton agreed, saying it was better for the two to get round a table rather than slug it out in public at the WTO.

Under WTO rules Australia cannot block a second request, which New Zealand put on the agenda of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body meeting of Jan. 21.

New Zealand is challenging a decision in March last year keeping strict controls on imports of New Zealand apples under Australia’s 1908 Quarantine Act, and further measures introduced in November 2006.

Although the March decision lifted a ban on imports of New Zealand apples imposed in 1921 to prevent the spread of a disease called fire blight, Wellington argues that the restrictions it left in place are excessive.

The case is likely to be followed closely by major apple exporters such as the European Union, United States, and Latin American producers, and major importers like Japan. (Reuters)