(May 17) Pressure? What pressure?

While there were reports that the U.S. ban on Spanish clementines was discussed at the early May summit between Spanish Prime Minister/European Council President Jose Maria Aznar of Spain and President Bush, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials told industry leaders there is no pressure to get a proposed rule that would reopen imports of clementines by a specific date.

The U.S. banned Spanish clementines in December after multiple finds of live Medfly larvae in several states. The ban provoked a lawsuit by Spanish citrus growers, who claim the USDA overreacted.

The Medfly larvae discoveries also mobilized an organized response by U.S. grower groups, who feel the risk of Medfly infestation must not be trivialized.

That was the backdrop of a fact-finding mission to Washington, D.C., the week of May 12 by members of the Plant Safeguarding Alliance.

While gathering facts on the USDA’s analysis of the issue, alliance members did plenty of opinion sharing, too.

The May 14 meeting was initiated and led by Bill Hawks, undersecretary for markets and regulations for the USDA. Hawks has oversight responsibility on the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Agricultural Marketing Service.

Among other USDA officials at the meeting were APHIS Administrator Bobby Accord and Foreign Agricultural Service Administrator Ellen Terpstra.

FULL SPECTRUM

Produce industry officials on hand represented the full spectrum of citrus organizations as well as regional and national general industry groups.

“I don't think any of us walked away feeling more comfortable after the meeting. We'll have to wait and see,” said Richard Matoian, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, Fresno.

USDA officials would not comment on the meeting, according to APHIS spokesman Jim Rogers.

The Medfly threat to U.S. agriculture was discussed, and APHIS officials broadly outlined likely changes to cold treatment and fly-trapping requirements.

One USDA official floated one idea apparently under consideration: restrictions on the movement of Spanish clementines to citrus producing states.

NOT SCIENCE

However, industry representatives said the meeting mainly was process, not science.

“What I took away from the meeting was the need for the industry to continue to engage with APHIS,” said Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers Association, Newport Beach, Calif.

“About 6% of clementines in Spain are exported to the U.S., and if we would put in place a flawed system, then 100% of American agriculture would be at risk and that has us deeply troubled,” he said.

Industry leaders say they did not receive clarity on some of his questions.

The USDA published a pest risk analysis last month as a precursor to a proposed rule last month, and the agency apparently has submitted a proposed rule on the revised quarantine protocol to the Office of Management and Budget for its review.

It declined a request by California Agriculture Secretary Bill Lyons to withdraw the rule in view of the fact that the UDSA sent the rule to OMB before the comment period on the USDA’s pest risk analysis was over.

Meanwhile, David Holzworth, Washington, D.C.-based legal counsel for Spanish citrus growers suing the USDA, said the oral argument on that case in the federal court in the eastern district of Pennsylvania was moved to June 5. Holzworth said he believes the proposed rule on Spanish clementines will be published by the end of May, considering the attention the White House is giving the matter, and a final rule likely will be in place by Oct. 1.