Idaho's valuable seed potatoes are of high quality, even though the organization that certifies seed after inspecting it for diseases misrepresented test results in 1984, industry officials say.

"I think Idaho potato seed is the highest quality in the world," says state Agriculture Department Director Dick Rush. "And it's going to continue to be high quality.""The potato seed produced in Idaho is of high quality, from a disease and physiological perspective both," says John Ojala, University of Idaho extension potato specialist in Idaho Falls.

"In fact, I think Idaho seed must be grown under stricter disease tolerances than in other seed certification programs."

Idaho is the nation's largest seed potato producer, supplying 25 to 28 percent of the seed stock used by the nation's commercial growers. Most is grown in eastern Idaho.

Agriculture officials estimate the annual crop value at $40 million to $50 million.

Rush says Idaho's competitors in the potato industry probably will try to take advantage of whatever damage Idaho Crop Improvement Association's reputation suffered from a September jury decision.

A Minidoka County district court jury found the state-sanctioned ICIA had acted with gross negligence.

ICIA has asked for a new trial. Rulings on the motions are expected soon, court officials say. The plaintiffs, potato growers in Minidoka County, were awarded $125,000 in damages from ICIA, including $50,000 in punitive damages.

ICIA had deliberately listed five seed lots infected with potato virus X levels of 33.9 percent to 44 percent as having only 4 percent, the maximum level it allows for virus-tested foundation-grade seed.

The seed was later sold to Douglas Grant, and his sons Duane and Douglas "Chip" Grant Jr.

The Grants say the seed also was infected with yield-slashing bacterial ring rot, which ICIA also had inspected for.

They sued ICIA and the seed broker after their 1985 crop sustained extensive damage from ring rot and frost.

"I don't believe, personally, that the quality of Idaho seed potatoes is going to go down," says Dale Stukenholtz. The Twin Falls agronomist worked with the Grants, and was a witness in the trial. "In fact, I think we're going to see improvements."

"We haven't all of a sudden had an explosion or a decrease in ring rot," says Greg Lowry, ICIA executive director. "There isn't a time bomb waiting to explode in Idaho seed stock."

Neil Gudmestad, chairman of the National Task Force for the Eradication of Bacterial Ring Rot, says Idaho's commercial growers, rather than its seed producers, could become the losers if commercial growers acquire a reputation for suing seed suppliers.

Gudmestad is an assistant professor of plant pathology at North Dakota State University at Fargo, in the Midwest's Red River Valley, another large potato-growing area.

He and others say the verdict did not stem from ICIA's testing for ring rot, but on its reporting of PVX levels. Gudmestad says PVX is not considered an economic threat to growers.

"The case hinged on a relatively unimportant pathogen," he says, "so I think things will continue on normally with Idaho and their customers."

ICIA is a non-profit association of certified seed crop producers.

Operating under contract with the University of Idaho College of Agriculture, it has sole responsibility for inspecting and testing seed potatoes for diseases, including potato virus X, and the scourge of potato growers, ring rot.

Its seed potato certification program is based in Idaho Falls.

The high levels of PVX found in 1984 were detected when ICIA replaced the radial diffusion test with the more sensitive enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, or ELISA.

The ELISA method of testing for PVX found that 36 percent of all seed tested in 1984 exceeded tolerances for virus-tested Foundation seed.

The tolerance level for bacterial ring rot is zero. Ring rot is difficult to detect, scientists say. Entire fields are rejected if one infected plant is found.

Grant says experts estimated that 30 percent to 35 percent of their crop had ring rot. Their own estimate was 40 to 50 percent.

"That's half the plants that had ring rot in them," he says. "And when you get half your plants with ring rot in them, they can't tell me their system is adequate."

Claiming they lost $150,000, the Grants sued seed broker and potato processor Max Herbold Inc., of Rupert.

Herbold had obtained the seed from Cornelison Farms of Rexburg. Cornelison grew the seed at Hamer.

Herbold and the Grants sued ICIA. The Grants accused ICIA of fraud. They said the ring rot, a highly contagious disease that can be spread by contaminated machinery, kept another farmer from helping with their harvest before that year's severe frost also damaged the crop.

Attorney John Hohnhorst of Twin Falls said the quality of ICIA's program for PVX relates directly to the quality of its programs for controlling other diseases in seed, including ring rot.

"If you effectively manage and use the PVX program, it's going to have a direct impact on the elimination of other diseases as well," he says.

The jury did not find that ICIA had committed fraud. The Grants have filed a motion asking the judge to do so.

In its verdicts against ICIA, the jury awarded Herbold $10,000 in damages from ICIA. Herbold was ordered to pay the Grants $21,150 for the cost of the seed. Attorneys in the case say damages awarded from Herbold will be paid by Cornelison's insurer.

ICIA officials admit it was wrong not to inform commercial growers of the new test results, and of the decision not to apply the results that year only.

They say the decision was made to protect producers of virus-tested seed from large losses in the year when ICIA was switching to a superior test and wasn't sure what the results would be.

ICIA now applies ELISA results in certifying seed, Lowry says.

ICIA officials insist they were not trying to defraud commercial growers.

"I don't see how anybody could think that," says Lowry. "Why would you have a more sensitive test if you weren't interested in increasing quality?"

"In retrospect, some of the decisions that were made maybe could have been different," says Mark Ricks, a Felt seed grower who chairs the ICIA's seed potato advisory committee. "We thought we were doing what was right."