The comment period for the proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule allowing Spanish shippers to resume exporting clementines to the U.S. ended Sept. 9, and the produce industry has made its voice heard in no uncertain terms.

Grower and shipper groups from California to Florida have submitted comments blasting the rule as being too lenient and unprotective of American growers of all kinds.

A coalition of California agricultural organizations, including the Sacramento-based California Farm Bureau Federation, the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League, Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual and the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Western Growers Association, submitted comments calling the rule “fatally flawed.”

Richard Matoian, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, said he finds the proposed rule objectionable on a number of levels, beginning with its proposal for a cold treatment plan to stamp out Medfly infestations.

“We don’t think that an additional two days of cold treatment is enough to kill the pests,” he said. “That’s been verified by many of the growers and packers in Spain.”

Matoian said the plan also allows too high a rate — 1.5% of the fruit for export to the U.S. — of live Medfly larvae.

“We just think that’s a very high amount,” he said. “We’re giving the Spanish growers a heck of a deal in allowing them to ship from areas that are known to have Medfly in them.”

Another problem, Matoian said, is that the rule looks at the issue in terms of being limited only to citrus. Medflies, he said, can breed in a number of other plants.

“It’s been presented as somewhat of a citrus issue,” he said. “The USDA has proposed that the fruit not be shipped into four states that produce citrus to protect those crops. Citrus is only one of a number of hosts. There are plenty of other plants in the other 46 states that could host a Medfly. The USDA has not taken those into consideration.”

Ray Gilmer, director of the Orlando-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s communications and education division, agreed, adding that other growers in Florida could be put at risk as well.

“Florida’s got dozens of crops that would have to be quarantined in the event of an outbreak,” he said. “Strawberry growers, citrus growers, everybody’s at risk in this thing.

The FFVA submitted its own comments regarding the rule, requesting that the USDA conduct a full year of testing to make sure all of the safety programs are implemented properly.

“Every aspect needs to be run through its course of operation for a year before we agree to allow that fruit back in,” Gilmer said.

Gilmer added Florida’s objections have nothing to do with the fact that the crop in question is Spanish clementines, which would increase competition for U.S. citrus growers.

“It’s got nothing to do with the product,” he said. “It’s got to do with the fact that there was a serious breakdown in the system where live larvae got through to the retail level.”

Matoian agreed, explaining that citrus wasn’t really the issue here.

“I don’t care if they bring in one boatload or a hundred boatloads of Spanish clementines,” he said. “What I do care about is that the fruit is Medfly-free. Our growers have been put at a tremendous risk.”

Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., added its voice to the mix, submitting its objections Sept. 9. In a letter to the USDA submitted on behalf of its 6,000 growers, Sunkist said that it was “deeply concerned that the appropriate phytosanitary conditions would not be maintained for our industry or other impacted commodities by the proposed rule.”

Sunkist recommended that the ban on imports of Spanish clementines should remain until “Spain has instituted a credible, verifiable Medfly eradication program.”

Matoian said he also has heard objections to the program voiced by the Texas Produce Association, Mission, as well as California senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, both Democrats.

The final rule could come as early as the end of September, but will likely be delayed until October.