(Nov. 27) TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In spite of toughened phytosanitary guidelines, clearly labeled cartons and a ban on a shipments of Spanish clementines to all U.S. citrus-producing states, the product has turned up in Florida.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was conducting an investigation into how 200 cartons of Spanish clementines wound up at a Sam’s Club store in Tallahassee.

The shipment, discovered Nov. 24 by John Fruin, a food microbiologist with the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, came from a Sam’s distribution center in Monroe, Ga., department officials said.

“The thing is, the Sam’s here is the only Sam’s in Florida that is serviced out of Monroe,” said Fruin, who said that 59 boxes of clementines had been already sold before they were discovered.

State officials were attempting to trace all product that had been sold.

“They’re treating it almost as a recall,” said Sue Challis, a spokeswoman for APHIS. “That should be easier there than at other stores because they use membership cards for purchases.”

Officials from the plant industry division of the Florida agriculture department transported 16 cartons of the clementines to Gainesville for testing.

Tests found no evidence of Mediterranean fruit fly larvae.

“We went through each box, cut open the fruit and examined it and no larvae was found,” said Richard Clark, the division’s bureau chief for plant inspection.

APHIS dispatched inspectors from its Smuggling, Interdiction and Trade Compliance division to Tallahassee and Monroe Nov. 25, Challis said.

“We also talked with Wal-Mart headquarters and are now working with Florida officials and Wal-Mart’s produce buyer,” Challis said.

APHIS has posted an industry alert that outlines regulations and answers frequently asked questions on its Web site, www.aphis.usda.gov, Challis said.

State agriculture officials combed the state in search of other Spanish clementines but found none, Fruin said.

“It was restricted to this one store in Tallahassee,” Fruin said. “They found some Moroccan clementines, but that was it.”

There are no restrictions against Moroccan clementines.

The USDA toughened phytosanitary rules on Spanish clementines in October. The U.S. banned the product in December 2001 after live Medfly larvae were discovered in shipments of Spanish clementines between Nov. 11 and Dec. 20, 2001.

The new rules allow cold-treated clementines from Spain to re-enter the U.S., accompanied by restrictions in geographic distribution of the fruit for at least the first year. No clementine shipments will be allowed during the 2002-03 season to Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Puerto Rico or any other U.S. territory.

All of this comes as little comfort to the Florida citrus industry, which already has voiced skepticism about allowing Spanish clementines anywhere in the U.S., said Richard Kinney, executive vice president of the Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers Inc.

“We have some real grave reservations about whether we’ll be able to do what’s necessary to eradicate the Medfly,” Kinney said. “The fact that Spanish clementines last year had a significant number of live larvae, and now finding fruit near or in Florida, is of concern to us. We have had doubts as to whether or not there is enough regulatory oversight to prevent distribution to (restricted) areas. Now, we’ve found those concerns to have merit.”

Connie Riherd, assistant director for plant industry with Florida’s agriculture department, said that the state likely would levy fines and take administrative action of some sort against offenders.

“The boxes were very clearly marked,” Riherd said.

Clark said that he could not fathom how the fruit ended up in Florida in the first place, since all cartons are labeled not for distribution in any citrus-growing state.

“It was brokered through somebody in Arkansas,” Clark said, referring to Bentonville, Ark., headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and its Sam’s affiliate.

But Riherd said that the hit-and-miss nature of USDA’s restrictions on Spanish clementines is partly to blame.

“They ought to include border states (in the ban) because of the trade patterns and distribution channels,” she said. “We were disappointed that they didn’t include those states, as well.”

Attempts to reach Sam’s Club officials for comment were unsuccessful.
“In talking to the buyer, I found out that the Winter Haven (Fla., Sam’s) location was to receive California or Florida clementines,” Fruin said. “It was a foul-up because in Georgia (Spanish clementines) were OK and this one store is serviced out of Georgia. It was a retailer error.”

Spanish clementines are not banned in Georgia. Monroe is about 50 miles east of Atlanta.

Even with new guidelines in place, agriculture officials with the Spanish government have estimated that overall volume this year could be only about half of recent normal seasons and perhaps about equal to last year’s interrupted season.

“I think they’re watching the fruit very carefully,” Kinney said. “I think even the Spanish are limiting fruit because they‘re apprehensive about the situation.”