(June 2) Despite press reports to the contrary, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not renounced its authority to take decisive action in the event of a Medfly outbreak related to Spanish clementine imports.

USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service official Richard Dunkle, deputy administrator of the Plant Protection and Quarantine Division of APHIS, wrote an open letter to the public and industry on May 20, in which it disputed Spanish press accounts which reported the USDA made concessions to Spanish authorities on the Medfly issue.

Referring to a meeting of PPQ officials and Spanish plant protection officials in Spain during the week of April 21, Dunkle said the event finalized revisions in the work plan for the 2003-04 shipping season.

The letter stated Spanish press accounts were wrong when they claimed the USDA renounced its authority to take decisive action in the event of another Medfly infestation and agreed to consult with the government of Spain before taking any defensive measures.

“Please be assured that no such arrangements were made or considered. On the contrary, the APHIS delegation clearly emphasized the responsibility of Spain to ensure that their clementine export program was robust enough to preclude detections of live Medflies in the United States,” the letter stated.

Dunkle’s letter also states that APHIS and Spanish officials have agreed to staff a USDA fruit fly control specialist in Spain to oversee Medfly field detection and control activities.

The letter said the Spanish clementine program, expanded to all states in the 2003-04, will be closely monitored.

The USDA reported that 20 million boxes of clementines were imported from Spain in the 2002-03 shipping season, and no live larvae were found in any imported fruit.

“Our agency is committed to protecting the health of American’s citrus resources,” the letter concluded.

Citrus industry leaders were generally pleased with the letter, if a little cautious.

“It’s beneficial to put out communications to keep people advised, and it’s a good precedent to set for the future,” said Kam Quarles, director of international trade policy and federal affairs for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Quarles said the Spanish press reports caused “a lot of heartburn” in the U.S. citrus industry, especially considering the accuracy of the Spanish media in predicting the Oct. 15 rule last year.

“We simply don’t know. (The Spanish press) didn’t pull those reports out of the air,” he said, noting the possibility of other government agencies communicating the U.S. position.

Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, agreed the letter was a positive step for the USDA. However, he said the USDA failed to acknowledge there were some finds of Medflies from the 2002-03 season. California Citrus Mutual and the California Grape & Tree Fruit League remain in a court battle over the Oct. 15 USDA rule, which allowed the resumption of Spanish clementine imports.

The U.S. had banned imports in early December 2001 after multiple findings of live Medfly larvae. The two organizations want the courts to overturn and terminate the Oct. 15 rule because of what they say are flawed scientific studies justifying it.

“We filed our rebuttal to the USDA brief (May 27) in federal court in Fresno, and the USDA has two weeks to respond,” Nelsen said. Oral arguments for the case are scheduled for July 15.