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Relaxed shipping regulations on Florida citrus bring mixed reactions

by Christina DiMartino | November 02, 2009
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service announced Oct. 22 that it had amended its citrus canker regulations to allow fruit from quarantined areas to be shipped to all U.S. states and territories based on results of new scientific research.

The ruling was praised in Florida, the only state that was under quarantine for citrus canker, but questioned by other citrus-producing states and territories.

Terence McElroy, press secretary for the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services in Tallahassee, told The Produce News that Charles H. Bronson, agriculture commissioner, takes the position that the department was surprised and disappointed when the ban went into effect for the 2006- 07 Florida citrus season.

"New research conducted by APHIS on citrus canker concludes that the disease is highly unlikely to be spread by harvested fruit without citrus canker symptoms," said Mr. McElroy. "Even harvested fruit with visible canker symptoms was shown in the research not to spread the disease as long as the fruit is disinfected at the packinghouse using approved methods."

The ban prevented fresh Florida citrus from being shipped to Arizona, California, Louisiana, Texas, Hawaii, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Mr. McElroy added that Florida tangerines especially enjoyed a good market in California prior to the ban. Producers had to try to develop new markets during the ban period, and prices have reflected their efforts accordingly.

"Now that the ban is lifted, it will help to restore the markets," said Mr. McElroy. "It will have a major positive impact on Florida citrus. Arguably, other citrus-producing states did not want our fresh fruit going into their states for political and competitive reasons. The FDACS has been presenting arguments at every opportunity since the ban was put in place. But now, additional testing by FDACS and the federal government recognizes that there is no potential for canker disease risk through fresh citrus."

Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual in Mission, TX, said that some of the organization's members are expressing concern about the ban being lifted.

"Some of our scientists in Texas feel it is very difficult to argue with the scientific methodology used in determining if the ban should be lifted," said Mr. Prewett. "In our comments prior to the decision, we noted that we were willing to accept the ban being lifted but that we wanted further studies conducted first."

Mr. Prewett said his office has commented to officials at APHIS, noting that citrus canker is endemic in Florida.

"It's more widespread than ever," he said. "Science has shown that grapefruit is more susceptible to canker than oranges. Texas' citrus crops are 70 percent grapefruit and 30 percent oranges, which escalates our concerns. Plants that are host to canker are not supposed to be moved out of Florida, but instances are documented proving that some have made it to Texas, especially through non-commercial channels."

Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, said that his agency was well aware of the proposed lifting of the ban and that it is satisfied with the decision.

"Prior to the new research findings, our concern was that the science was incomplete as to whether bacteria-free fruit could move into other citrus- producing states and not create a canker problem," said Mr. Nelsen. "New study results were fairly compelling, so we did not offer any comments, nor did we oppose the decision to lift the ban."

Mr. Nelsen added that the USDA has been very transparent throughout the research and discovery process, which has helped to reduce fears that canker could be carried to another state.

"We have worked with our friends in Florida over the past few years to resolve this issue," said Mr. Nelsen. "And we are very comfortable with the USDA's decision. As a result, we can now work with Florida growers on something that is much more important: Huanglongbing disease."

HLB, commonly called greening or yellow dragon disease, is one of the more serious citrus diseases in the world. It destroys the economic value of fruit and can kill trees. It has significantly reduced citrus production in Asia, Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and Brazil. Once infected, there is no cure for a tree with citrus greening disease.