(May 7, 1:07 p.m.) More exotic fruits from Hawaii could soon start appearing in mainland retail stores or on restaurant menus.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service has amended Hawaiian fruit regulations to allow mangosteen, dragon fruit, melon, pods of cowpea, breadfruit, jackfruit and fresh moringa pods to be shipped to the continental U.S. if they are irradiated.

The final ruling went into effect when it was published May 6 in the Federal Register.

“It’s a lifesaver,” said Terry Weaver, owner of Kona Dragon Fruit Inc., Kealakekua, Hawaii. “We’ve been counting on this since 2001. It’s been difficult for us to find enough markets within the state.”

Weaver said he expects his company to produce 30 tons, or 4,000 15-pound boxes, of dragon fruit this year. The season started with light supplies in May, but volume is expected to increase in July with the season winding down in November.

Eric Weinert, vice president of CW Hawaii Pride LLC, Keeau, said his company’s irradiation facility treats 10 million pounds of produce each year for shipments to other states. Until now, those products primarily have been apple bananas, sweet potatoes and papayas. He said he didn’t expect the volume of fruit shipped from Hawaii to increase dramatically overnight because it will take time to find markets for the newly available commodities.

“You never know when a final ruling is going to come out,” he said. “You just disappoint people if you say you’re going to have it and then don’t have the authorization to ship it.”

Weinert said the ruling will help Hawaii keep its agricultural lands in production and out of development. According to the USDA, Hawaii’s growers sold 1.4 million pounds of specialty produce worth $2.6 million in 2006.

“Hawaii is never going to be a big producer,” Weinert said. “These are niche crops, but there are small pockets throughout the country that appreciate what we have.”

The USDA said in its ruling that Hawaiian shipments should not hurt mainland growers because the specialty crops are not grown commercially in other states and Hawaii’s melon production is minimal.

The ruling was years in the making, much to the frustration of Hawaiian growers. The USDA approved irradiated mangoes from India in 2006, and the agency cleared irradiated mangosteens from Thailand last year.

The USDA has said those countries were approved sooner than Hawaii because the state is using a lower dose of irradiation to mitigate pest and disease issues.

“It’s been a long road,” said Jenny Johnson, co-owner of Onomea Orchards LLC, Pepeekeo. “It’s unbelievable.”

Johnson has been shipping products like rambutan and starfruit to the U.S. for a decade and already has been talking with mainland distributors about shipping mangosteens. She said that the year’s first mangosteen crop wrapped up in February but a second crop is expected in the fall.

Johnson said jackfruit will be a challenge for shippers. The immense tree fruit, which tastes similar to pineapple, weighs 15-30 pounds.

“Once it starts to ripen, it goes pretty fast,” Johnson said.

Meanwhile, sources said the volcanic smog emitting from Kilauea volcano has not had much effect on produce crops. The Associated Press reported that the Big Island volcano opened a new vent in March and began spewing twice as much sulfur dioxide as usual. The AP reported that the gas has badly damaged commercial flower crops.

Weaver said conditions had not harmed his dragon fruit, but the crop is four weeks later than usual because of reduced sunlight.

USDA ruling gives new life to Hawaii’s shippers
The USDA's May 6 ruling will allow Hawaiian fruits such as this 25 oz. pink-fleshed dragon fruit from Kona Dragon Fruit Inc., Kealakekua, Hawaii, to be shipped to the continental U.S., providing it is irradiated. Company owner Terry Weaver says he expects Kona to produce 30 tons of dragon fruit this year.