Produce industry officials are lobbying to protect a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in West Texas from the congressional budget axe.

The Weslaco-based Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center, a lab operated by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, is on a list of possible budget cuts, said John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association.

The facility has conducted important research on quarantine treatments for imported mangoes and methods for combating Mexican fruit fly, McClung said, and its loss would be keenly felt.

“We vigorously oppose its being closed,” he said. “Sixty percent of the produce now shipped in Texas comes from Mexico, and that product has to be kept safe.”

Without immediate inspection at a lab such as  the research center — after mangoes, citrus and other commodities are imported from Mexico — it’s hard to guarantee that safety, McClung said.

In fact, McClung wants to see the facility expanded. He has urged the Food and Drug Administration to establish a presence at the lab. “Intramural squabbling” between the FDA and USDA has prevented that from happening, McClung said.

William Watson, executive director of the Orlando-based National Mango Board, said Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center researchers helped develop the original quarantine treatments for mangoes, and also worked on revising those protocols in 2002.

The National Mango Board is currently working with KSARC to identify the effects of irradiation on Manila mangos from Mexico, Watson said.

“KSARC houses the only governmental resources in the continental U.S. charged with researching quarantine treatments for tropical and subtropical fruit,” he said.

Center scientists, Watson said, have investigated the possible use of hot forced air for use on citrus and mangoes, and have been instrumental in the release of sterile insects and selected sprays to establish a fly free zone in northern Mexico.

“If the lab is closed, the mango industry would lose a valuable partner in the research and implementation of programs designed to improve quality and control pests,” Watson said.

Despite a rough road ahead in the budget process, McClung is cautiously optimistic about the lab’s future.

“The skirmishing on the budget is going to be hideous,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day we’ll prevail.”