Chilean grape importers and port associations are asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture to push back inspection requirements following an earthquake there.

Earthquake prompts Chilean grape request

A coalition of the Delaware River port community and importers asked the department to move back the April 10 inspection date by as much as 20 days and to exempt restrictions on crimson seedless grapes.

“The fact that all three ports, which compete with each other, are in agreement on this matter shows how important the topic really is,” said Ricardo Maldonado, executive director of the Chilean & American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, in a news release.

But California grape shippers, who lobbied for the USDA to establish the date as the Coachella, Calif., spring grape harvest starts, say the facts don’t support an extension.

“All the information we have coming out the growing area is that the impact of the earthquake — which certainly is devastating on people — has not had a significant negative impact on the ability of growers to harvest their fruit and get it shipped,” said Kathleen Nave, president of the  Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission.

The disruption caused by the earthquake may be the equivalent of a three-day harvest delay,” she said. “There isn’t, as far as we can tell, a humanitarian issue here.”

The letter from the ports and fruit traders asked the USDA for a 10- to 20-day suspension from Import Regulation 4 from April 10 to April 30, according to the release.

Beginning in 2009, standards imposed for imports by the California desert grape marketing order required all imported grapes to meet minimum U.S. No. 1 standards by April 10, ten days earlier than in 2008.

Exporters say the inspection standards make it too risky for exporters to ship seedless grapes to the U.S. arriving after that date. If the grapes fail the quality inspection when the marketing order is in effect, there is no chance to move the fruit to another market and they must be dumped.

 California desert grape growers have expressed concern that heavy volume of Chilean grapes — particularly crimson seedless — can have a negative effect on their market.

Just cause?

The ports of Philadelphia, Gloucester and Wilmington petitioned the USDA for the extension, arguing the 8.8 magnitude earthquake caused damage to infrastructure needed to transport the grape harvest.

Because of the disruption in the harvest in Chile, exporters will lose the ability to distribute its crop, according to the release. What’s more, table grape crops from Mexico and Southern California are expected to arrive 10 days to 12 days later than normal, the release said, leaving an ample marketing window for Chile grapes in April.

Tensions between Chile and California over the overlap of the winter grape season and the start of the domestic deal have been around for about two decades.

In 2001, California desert grape growers filed an anti-dumping petition against Chilean grape imports. In 2005, a proposed rule from the USDA (supported by California desert grape growers) would have moved the date of the marketing order to April 1.

In 2009, the USDA moved the effective date of the marketing order from April 20 to April 10.

Tony Bianco, president of Coachella-based Desert Fresh Inc., said the Coachella Valley will begin the first 10 days of May.