U.S. buyers can forget about Argentine citrus this summer — and perhaps next.

A federal district court ruling last fall in Fresno, Calif., that effectively blocks the importation of Argentine citrus will stand through at least this season, which runs from June to October. And, observers say, if the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t soon launch an appeal of the court ruling or begin fashioning a new rule, next season might go by the wayside, as well.

“We are aware this season is not going to be possible,” said Xavier Equihua, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Federal Strategies Group, which represents the Argentine Citrus Producers Association.

Equihua said in late March he was awaiting the solicitor general’s determination whether to appeal the court ruling, which invalidated the USDA’s “systems approach” to allowing Argentine imports into the U.S. without endangering domestic producers’ groves with pests and diseases such as citrus canker. The ruling sided with California citrus interests — the plaintiffs in the case — and chided the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service for poorly defining “negligible risk.”

The ruling also expressed concern with entrusting SENASA, Argentina’s plant protection agency, with enforcing the mitigation measures used by the systems approach.

Protocols covering such things as production, the creation of buffer zones, packinghouse sanitation and cold treatments were to be administered mostly by SENASA, but the ruling cited the agency’s role in a cover-up of bovine foot-and-mouth disease in 2000 that threatened Argentina’s $250 million-a-year beef export industry.

Equihua said the rule worked, despite the court’s ruling. In the two seasons that Argentine imports were allowed into the U.S. market (2000 and 2001), no problems were identified, he said.

Time was running out in late March for the Justice Department to appeal the court ruling. A more likely scenario is that APHIS will retool its rule, addressing the court’s concerns.

“We believe the USDA will be able to define negligible risk,” Equihua said.

About 1 million packages of Argentine citrus — primarily lemons — reached U.S. buyers last summer. The two major importers were Fort Pierce, Fla.-based DNE World Fruit Sales and Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet LLC.

Bruce McEvoy, Seald Sweet’s chief executive officer, said he met with officials in Washington, D.C., in early March and was told that either course of action regarding Argentine citrus — an appeal of the court ruling or the making of a new rule by APHIS — would take a year. That means action of some sort will have to come soon, or else the 2003 season will also be in doubt for U.S. buyers.