(Feb. 12, 11:00 a.m.) Nogales, Ariz., importers are concerned a new state law could halt weekend quality inspections of fresh produce crossing at the Mariposa Port of Entry — a critical link to fruit and vegetable supplies during the U.S. off-season.

In the wake of a state budget crisis, Arizona legislators recently approved a bill to take funds from state programs, including fees paid by produce importers meant for quality inspections by the state’s Department of Agriculture. The fees are not for phytosanitary or food safety tests.

Produce companies in Arizona pay for the produce inspections, which the state does through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

But state legislators, in their efforts to cut $1.6 billion from the state budget, stripped $516,000 from the inspection fund with House Bill No. 2001, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed Jan. 31, said Laura Oxley, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Another section of the bill will take $171,400 in anticipated fees for the fund through June 30, making the total loss to the fund $687,500, Oxley said.

Was the move legal?

“We’re working to build a case that this isn’t legal legislation,” said Allison Moore, communications director for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales. “Part of the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 outlines that money needs to stay in that program and doesn’t belong to the state. We feel the state has no choice the way the cooperative agreement is spelled out between the state and the (USDA).

“It’s not their money,” she said.

The FPAA and Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif., have spearheaded efforts to protect the inspection funds.

“This is the third time the state has tried to take these funds,” said Chris Ciruli, chief operating officer of Ciruli Bros., Nogales. “It’s a large amount of cash. It affords inspectors the opportunity to inspect product seven days a week.”

Weekend inspections may be endangered

Ciruli is one of many who believes loss of funds will limit the state’s ability to provide quality inspections on produce entering the U.S. on weekends. Inspections currently take place seven days a week. Eliminating or limiting two days, with the volume of fruit that comes across from Mexico, could ultimately be very costly to crops, Ciruli said.

“We’re at peak production of tomatoes,” he said. “We need our Saturday and Sunday services. It would devastate tomatoes — and probably the grape crop from Sonora this spring — if we did not get Saturday and Sunday service.

“It’s a sensitive subject in Nogales, Phoenix and Yuma. Basically, (the state is) just out of money. They’re trying to find areas of positive cash flow to dip into. We’re going to continue watching these funds until it all plays out.”

Representatives of the FPAA, Western Growers and USDA are speaking to legislators and representatives at the governor’s office, asking the House bill be amended, Moore said.

“What we’re hearing back from the Arizona Department of Agriculture is that, right now everything is set to continue (the inspections) on track,” Moore said. “They’re not having any problems. They’re managing cash flow that they have in anticipation of getting the money back.”

“I’m extremely confident that we are not going to get our inspection funds raided,” Ciruli said. “The state is aware we’ll proceed with every legal means necessary to keep our money intact.”