By Don Schrack

The Packer

Whether Florida will remain an annual destination for several million cartons of California citrus could be determined, at least temporarily, Dec. 18 by a Tallahassee judge.

The court date stems from a dispute that has tied the hands of marketers in both states, some of whom are growing more and more impatient.

California Citrus Mutual in Exeter and four grower-packer-shippers filed a lawsuit Dec. 7 asking the court to halt the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services from requiring all California citrus shipped to Florida be inspected for a common fungus, Septoria citri.

At the Dec. 18 hearing, the plaintiffs plan to ask the judge to issue a temporary restraining order against the Florida restrictions, says Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.

The California citrus industry maintains it has been shipping fruit to Florida for more than 50 years and that nothing has changed to call for blanket inspections for Septoria, which can cause skin blemishes on the fruit.

Florida's initial position was that groves of all fruit that might be destined for Florida had to be inspected. It subsequently modified its demands to require the fruit be inspected at packinghouses and shipped in cartons bearing a Florida-approved stamp and with supporting documentation.

The requirements went into effect Dec. 7, a week later than originally planned.

"The problem is that we'd have to have inspectors at every packinghouse in the state, and there's just not enough manpower to do it, particularly for an action that's unwarranted,? Nelsen says.

Joining California Citrus Mutual in filing suit were California-based companies Sunkist Growers Inc. of Sherman Oaks; Corona College Heights Orange and Lemon Association of Riverside; and Pro Citrus Network Inc. of Visalia.

That the matter has escalated to a court battle riles some industry leaders, who say the two states have not been communicating professionally since the topic surfaced in late September.

"All this nonsense that we're going through now could have been resolved if they both would have sat down at the table and talked,"says David Mixon, chief marketing officer for Seald Sweet International in Vero Beach, Fla. "It's absolutely ridiculous for it to be at this point."

Seald Sweet, which has growers in both states, and others in the Florida citrus industry were not made aware of the Florida agency's plans to require the inspections.

"I wasn't even aware that septoria spot was going to be an issue until I got e-mails from my California packinghouses Nov. 27," Mixon says.

That's when the Western state's packinghouses were first notified of the inspection requirement. Sales to Florida customers ended abruptly.

Don Shrack is a writer for The Packer, a sister publication of The Grower. To subscribe to The Packer, click here.