(Nov. 1) Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is getting an earful from domestic producers over her department’s Spanish clementine ruling.

A letter sent to her Oct. 31 was more trick than treat. Signed by 15 organizations representing domestic fruit and vegetable producers, the letter suggests politics rather than science led to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule allowing imports of Spanish clementines to resume by early November.

Those imports were halted last year when shipments containing live Medfly larvae were discovered in the U.S. Revisions to the protocol, including the addition of two extra days of cold treatment, were made in the USDA’s final rule, issued Oct. 15.

But while the USDA argues its decision was science-based, “its own new research on the application of cold treatment has not yet been completed,” according to the letter. “This conclusion on the efficacy of the treatment is based solely on an Australian study that has not been subjected to peer review or confirmed by subsequent research.”

The USDA has chosen to ignore alternative safeguards, the letter states. It requires that Florida citrus be fumigated with methyl bromide before shipment to other citrus-producing states, for example. And California tangerines must be fumigated upon arrival in Japan. Clementines from Mexico must be fumigated with methyl bromide to enter the U.S.

“Given these requirements, we do not understand USDA’s objection to prescribing the same treatment for Spanish clementines,” the letter states.

The letter also takes issue with the USDA’s communications process. Domestic stakeholders were shut off from discussions once the rule was published, and at the same time “there are credible reports that the details of the final rule, the date it would be issued, and the work plan were being discussed with Spanish exporters and U.S. importers.”

Domestic producers are at greatest risk if the program fails, the letter states, noting public resistance to Medfly eradication programs have been well-documented in the past and suggests that the potential success of future eradication efforts could be undermined.

The USDA should be solely responsible for the funding of eradication efforts — including all court costs incurred in defending them — should the program fail, the letter states.

“The point of the letter is to make sure the industry is on record showing its displeasure at this,” said Mike Stuart, president of the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, which drafted the letter and is among the 15 co-signers. “There’s got to be some accountability in the process.”

An Oct. 15 court filing by members of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual and the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, meanwhile, could clear the way for a lawsuit challenging the Spanish clementine rule before Thanksgiving, said Joel Nelsen, mutual president. The filing was meant to allow Californians to fight the battle on their home turf if they ultimately choose to, he said