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A proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service would lift a ban on the shipment of Hass avocados from Peru into the continental United States, subject to the implementation of a phytosanitary protocol similar to that required for other imported fruit.

APHIS issued a notice of the proposed rule Jan. 6 and published the notice in the Federal Register Jan. 7. The proposal is now in a comment period, and APHIS will "consider all comments received on or before March 9," according to the notice.

Industry sources expect that it could take a year or longer before the final rule is approved, the protocols are in place, and the first shipments begin. Peru has been lobbying for access to U.S. markets for more than eight years.

Although Peru, being in the Southern Hemisphere, is contra-seasonal to the United States, which might lead one to expect that the harvest season to be similar to what it is in Chile, in fact the Hass avocado harvest in Peru takes place during the same months as it does in California, mainly from May through August. "It is exactly the same as California's," said Guy Witney, director of industry affairs for the California Avocado Commission in Irvine, CA. The bloom period is very different from California, but because of the climate and soils of the growing areas in Peru, the fruit is produced "in a much more rapid cycle. They are harvesting seven to eight months" after bloom, "whereas we are harvesting 14 to 15 months later."

Consequently, Peruvian imports will compete directly with California-grown Hass avocados, which has been a concern to some.

However, Mr. Witney does not expect California growers to be seriously harmed by competition from Peruvian imports. "I think the combination of Peru and California ... and the amount that normally comes from Mexico during the summer months probably is going to be required to meet the demand of the expanding market," he said. "In the future, it is probably going to be a good thing that there are these other supplies in the market."

He does think that California Hass "will continue to enjoy segregation in value because it is producing the fruit on America's doorstep, and as such can deliver very fresh and high-quality fruit to the market."

"As the pie gets bigger, there is going to be room for additional volume to come in," said Jose Luis Obregon, executive director of the Hass Avocado Board in Irvine, CA, which represents avocados from all sources in the U.S. market. "As in the past, we are going to have to be very well coordinated amongst all importers and suppliers of fruit to be able to have an orderly flow of fruit throughout the year," he added. "It is going to be very important to communicate with all the players and get their projections so the industry knows how the new dynamic is going to work."

He noted that the anticipated 40 million pounds of avocados shipped annually from Peru would be the equivalent of two weeks of consumption in the United States, although it would be "spread out over a period of 12-15 weeks," overlapping California's season. But "there is going to be room for everybody," he said.

Mr. Obregon has visited avocado operations in Peru, and leaving aside any phytosanitary issues, said, "Operationally, they have very good fruit and state-of-the-art packinghouses." It is the job of HAB and other avocado marketing associations "to increase avocado consumption in the United States, so as imports continue to increase, consumption should continue to increase with all the programs we have in place," he added.

Mission Produce Inc. in Oxnard, CA, is currently involved in handling Peruvian avocados, exporting them mainly to Canada, and expects to be bringing them in to the United States once APHIS gives the go-ahead.

"Actually, we went down to Peru [some years ago] initially to look into avocados" and wound up getting into the asparagus import business, said Ross Wileman, vice president of sales and marketing at Mission. "Many of [the avocado growers] grow asparagus, and that is how we entered that field." Even though the Peruvian imports will compete with California fruit, "we see that as an opportunity to diversify," he said. "Our position has always been to have as much diversification as possible" so that if there are "catastrophic events such as have occurred recently with California and Chilean freezes" and with "fires, droughts, you name it" in California, Mission would "always have another supply source."

Before the fruit is allowed into the United States, "naturally it is going to have to pass all the hurdles" with the proper "phytosanitary controls in place" in order to minimize or eliminate the risk of harmful insect pests being introduced into the United States, Mr. Wileman said.