(UPDATED COVERAGE, Oct. 22) In an anticipated decision, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has lifted a three-year ban Florida citrus shipments to California, Texas and Arizona, saying measures to stop the spread of citrus canker are sufficient.
The ban ended Oct. 22, when the Federal Register published new rules regarding treatment of citrus from Florida. The USDA said commercially packed and disinfected fresh citrus isn't an "epidemiologically significant pathway" for the introduction and spread of the disease.
Florida grapefruit, oranges and tangerines are no longer required to be inspected and declared free of visible canker symptoms at the packinghouse. Florida companies have been allowed to ship to non-citrus-producing states only if fruit originating from infected groves was judged to be free of canker infection, but California, Texas and Arizona were off limits.
Florida shippers still must disinfect fruit that's shipped out of state, and non-commercial citrus (from back yards) cannot leave the state.
After three years of trying to reopen the huge California and Texas consumer markets to Florida shippers, the final rule represents exactly what Florida's citrus industry wanted, said Dan Richey, chief executive officer of Riverfront Groves LLC, Vero Beach, Fla.
Richey said the Florida industry worked closely with its California and Texas industry counterparts on the issue.
"I don't blame other citrus-producing states for being very cautious early on because it was really a fear of the unknown," Richey said. "We didn't know if a lesion on a piece of fruit that had gone through the packinghouse could spread disease. If you don't know, you have to react as cautiously as possible.
"The research proved that was not a fear to be reckoned with," he said. "The vector for spreading the disease is clearly plant material, not a small lesion on the fruit."
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, said the ruling wasn't a surprise. He said his group didn't oppose the rule.
"We didn't have any concern after seeing the science," he said. "That void was filled. So let it be. It stands on its own. It's not necessarily a precedent for other areas or other diseases, which is important to us. Science will dictate what needs to take place in moving fresh product from a pest or a disease-infected area."
In the past, Florida shippers sent 1 million to 2 million cartons — valued at $10 million — of mostly tangerines to California, Texas and Arizona.
Citrus-producing states used to buy about 5% of Florida's domestically shipped fruit and represented 2.5% of the total U.S. fresh citrus market, according to Florida industry figures.
Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.)is praising the rule changes.
“This is a victory for science-based regulations, a victory for Florida fresh fruit growers and shippers, and a victory for consumers all over America who look forward to receiving fresh citrus from Florida in the winter,” Putnam said in a news release. “This comes not a moment too soon, as this marks the beginning of the Florida fruit shipment season.”
The change could affect more than 50 Florida packinghouses, according to the release.
An early version of the rule can be found here.