By Estelle Ellis

Those large and delectable strawberries Cape shoppers have been enjoying triggered search-and-seize raids by Israeli agents on fields in Stellenbosch and Ceres - and two farmers now face criminal prosecution and civil claims.

Brothers Jeffrey and Julian Zetler allegedly battled a fruit squad acting on behalf of Israel which swooped on large number of "unlawfully obtained" strawberry plants in their fields.

The police had to be called to protect the raiding party after it was alleged that they were obstructed in their efforts by the two owners of Zetler & Sons.

"Plant breeders and agricultural institutions in the United Kingdom and the United States have taken a dim view of this matter and are watching the outcome with keen

interest," said Andre Immelman, chief executive of Chapter II Farming, the only licensed grower of the special strawberries in southern Africa.

The successful application for a Cape High Court order against one of the Western Cape's foremost strawberry farmers was brought by the State of Israel, Giyo International and Immelman recently, but could only be made public after the order for a search and seize raid had been executed.

In papers before court, the farmers, Zetler & Sons, Jeffrey Zetler, Julian Zetler, Wynland Boerdery, Limberpost, Morester Landgoed and Stargrow are accused of "acquiring certain strawberry varieties unlawfully".

Woolworths and Pick'n Pay have been drawn into the fray, being cited as respondents because they sold strawberries which Israel claims were unlawfully obtained.

Israel alleges that the farmers infringed its rights under the Plant Breeder's Right Act.

Several "search-and-seize" warrants were issued on three occasions for the farms in the Stellenbosch and Ceres areas.

The Zetler brothers are considered among the biggest supplier and growers of strawberries in South Africa.

According to papers before court, the brothers took umbrage when the search-and-seize team swooped on their large strawberry fields and packing facilities.

The team was accompanied by Israeli Eva Izsak, 70, who had bred the variety and was flown to South Africa by the Israeli authorities.

Police were called in to assist the team representing Israel after "things became quite heated", as Deon Bouwer, one of the attorneys present during the raid, described it in papers before court.

He also accused the Zetlers of being obstructive and "playing games" with the court.

Izsak accompanied officials from the SA department of agriculture to identify and quantify some of the strawberry varieties bred by Israel's Volcani Institute, which forms part of their Department of Agriculture.

The focus of the application was a new strawberry bred by the institute.

According to Andre Immelman of Chapter II Farming, the strawberries represent a "major" improvement over "conventional" strawberry varieties traditionally available in South Africa.

They are known by their Hebrew names as "Tamar", "Yael", "Malah" and "Buba".

They are called "Infra Short Day" varieties and have a "legally protected induction engine" which causes them to produce fruit for almost nine months of the year, from May to January.

The traditional strawberry varieties produce for only three to four months, from August or September to November or December.

Immelman said these new varieties were "very large" and heart-shaped, exceptionally sweet, firm without being crunchy and had an excellent shelf life.

The strawberries had a high gloss and were bright orange or red, and had no "pitted seeds", which gave them a polished look. The varieties also had an excellent "strawberry" aroma and taste.

Chapter II Farming in George had secured the exclusive growing and propagation rights to these varieties for the whole of southern Africa in 1998.

The 2001 season had been supposed to bring the commercial introduction of these varieties on to the South African market.

But then two months ago, Immelman said, large quantities of the exceptional strawberries had become available at supermarkets and fruit merchants.

Immelman said they had been "allegedly produced by the Zetlers on their various premises in Stellenbosch".

Samples of the strawberries being offered for sale had been sent to Israel for tests, which confirmed that they were indeed Israeli-bred strawberries.

"The Zetlers and the companies under their control do not have any authority to grow or propagate these varieties," Immelman said.

During the raid, Izsak found "large numbers of the varieties Tamar and Malah" growing in the Zetlers' fields.

The Registrar of Plant Breeder's Rights was instructed by a court order to destroy all unlawful plant material seized from the strawberry fields.

Immelman said that without the financial resources available to fund research into new plant varieties, South African growers were greatly dependent on plant breeders all over the world to supply them with new varieties that would ensure the growers remained competitive in world markets.