Leading horiticulturists in Australia have called for a ban on table grape imports from California in the fear that Pierce's disease, the killer vine bacterium, could be transmitted to Australian vineyards.

Pierce's disease is costing the California wine industry tens of millions of dollars, prompting US Vice President Al Gore to declare a federal emergency. With the arrival of the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter, a dangerously effective transmitter of the disease, whole areas of vineyard have been ripped up in California's Temecula valley, a once fledgling wine region.

While the threat of devastation gets ever worse in the Golden State, Australian authorities are set to approve the importation of table grapes from California.

This is prompting industry leaders to lobby the Australian Federal government to ban imports until the disease is brought under control or more is known about the effectiveness of fumigation methods using methyl bromide.

Horticulture expert Paul Sellars was quoted in Australia's Herald and Weekly Times today saying: "The risk to horticulture, one of the brightest lights of any Australian industry in the past decade, is too great. No shipments of table grapes should be allowed to land in this country until the disease is under control and growers are given unmistakable proof the methyl bromide works."

Earlier this year the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) approved shipments of the grapes, which are now awaiting Federal approval.

The AQIS says that enough is known about the effects of methyl bromide on a range of pests to be sure it would eliminate the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter. There will also be pre-shipment inspections to ensure the GWSS does not escape to Australia bringing with it Pierce's disease.

But Australian grape experts have been unconvinced by these assurances saying that the irrigated districts of Sunraysia, the Riverina and the Riverland are "accidents waiting to happen" should the disease ever take hold there.

Chris Brook-Carter