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West Coast Citrus Producers At Risk From Exotic Pests, Trade Rules

Sunkist official warns that shifting U.S. policies could harm citrus growers


February 07, 2003

Sherman Oaks, Calif., February 7, 2003….With San Diego farmers locked into a 117-square mile Mexican fruit fly quarantine as his example, a Sunkist official warned that shifts in the U.S. exotic pest protection program and trade policies could lead to even greater problems for California-Arizona citrus producers.

Michael Wootton, Sunkist's vice president for corporate relations, painted a difficult and challenging picture for the citrus industry's future in its ongoing war with exotic pest infestations and their resulting trade inequities when he spoke at a recent meeting of the California Citrus Quality Council.

CCQC is an industry-funded group that works against unfair trade policies related to pest, disease and phytosanitary issues for California growers and shippers.

Quarantine zones stop movement of products from inside a quarantine zone drawn around discoveries of illegal pests in this country. In some cases, fruit is allowed into chains of commerce if it has been fumigated or put through authorized cold treatment protocol.

"Even if it is treated, most of our trading partners will not allow the fruit to enter their countries unless it is from a pest-free production area," said Wootton. He used Japan as a vivid example of a country with mixed signals based on two words: permanent or temporary quarantines.

Japan allows fresh citrus from competing countries if it has undergone cold treatment. For example, said Wootton, South Africa, Chile, Spain and Morocco have permanent quarantine pests such as Mediterranean fruit fly. "Yet, Japan refuses to allow the same mitigation for our fruit caught in a temporary infestation and quarantine," he lamented.

"This unfair and discriminatory policy is continually raised in government-to- government meetings by U.S. officials, but Japan continues to resist the logic."

Wootton warned that citrus producers - already facing increased numbers of pest intruders - will see more despite the state's extensive trapping system. "It's not just our age-old nemesis the Medfly anymore, but we're seeing more finds of Mexican, Oriental, peach, guava and olive fruit flies."

Wootton based his outlook for more pests on converging government policies that increase citrus and other produce imports, while significantly relaxing phytosanitary rules and on budget cuts that reduce inspection manpower.

There has been a ten-fold increase in fresh citrus imports into the U.S. markets in the past decade, said Wootton. Market value of these imports has grown from $25 million per year in the mid-1990s to $250 million in 2002.

"Free Trade Agreements being sought with Chile, South Africa, Australia, Morocco, Central America and the whole of South America will be one-way streets for produce trade," Wootton charged. "These countries will provide very little opportunity for sales of U.S. produce, including citrus."

Meanwhile foreign governments and importers are pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lower standards to allow foreign produce easier entry, said Wootton. USDA published its proposals in the Oct. 1, 2002 Federal Register.

"Sunkist submitted 17 pages of critical comment against lowering standards," said Wootton. Among the provisions, USDA seeks to eliminate the "without risk" criteria and replace in with an undefined standard set by an international body, not based on traditional U.S. standards.

The third strike against pest intrusion is a reduced budget and personnel. "On March 1, 3,000 inspectors previously working for USDA at ports of entry into the U.S. will be moved to the Department of Homeland Security, along with $300 million of USDA's phytosanitary security budget.

"So, at the time we're getting more incoming volume of product from historically pest-ridden areas, we will have reduced capacity to inspect them," said Wootton. "It all adds up to increased challenges for the citrus industry in the months and years ahead."