(Jan. 21) The crack in the door in 1993 may be blown open in the next few months.

It seems the U.S. is close to deciding whether to fully open the U.S. market to Mexican avocados.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in June published a pest risk analysis that was a precursor to a proposed rule expected early this year.

Negative industry comments on that pest risk analysis may sway the USDA to scale back the full opening, but it doesn’t seem likely, based on a reading of the language in the department’s report.

For example, the analysis said the risk of avocado pests entering the U.S. in legally imported commercial fruit is far less than the risk posed by prohibited avocados in baggage and cargo at U.S. ports of entry.

The report said not one Mexican fruit in 10 million cut and inspected since 1997 has contained a quarantine pest.

“We believe the most likely annual number of avocados infested with a pathway pest likely to be imported from Mexico each year under the expanded distribution scenario is zero,” the USDA paper said.

Gaining access to the entire U.S. has been a long-awaited goal for Mexican authorities and hass avocados growers.

The chronology for the quest for Mexican hass avocados to the U.S. market dates back to 1914, when the USDA prohibited the importation of avocados from Mexico because of seed weevils.

In 1993, after being petitioned by the Mexican government, the USDA allowed entry of Mexican hass avocados into Alaska under certain conditions.

That was a measured first step if there ever was one, but even then there were scores of comments against that rule.
California avocado growers were rightly concerned that entry into Alaska would be only the first step of a journey that would result in Mexican hass fruit in their back yards.

“Our concern is that it is a crack in the door. If allowed into Alaska, when do other states become eligible?” one California avocado shipper said at the time.

That reality, they feared, could put their production at risk from pests.

Left unsaid was the fear of economic ruin. In January 1993, Mexico hass prices were about 50 cents per pound delivered to Toronto. That compared with $1 per pound for California hass fruit in New York.

In 1997, the USDA allowed entry of Mexican hass avocados into 19 U.S. states from November to February, subject to certain phytosanitary conditions.

Then, in 2001, the USDA allowed entry of Mexican hass to 31 states from Oct. 15 through April 15.

Now, the whole enchilada appears to be on the plate.
Would the California industry survive Mexican hass access to the California and Texas markets?

One California marketer told me that it would unquestionably survive, though the presence of Mexican fruit in the U.S.

Southwest will compress the harvest period for California fruit.
“We won’t have the luxury of a 12-month harvest. It will be 10, seven or six months a year,” he said.

That will translate into bigger weekly volume during California’s peak harvest from March though June, while other suppliers would dominate in other periods.

For example, Chilean peak shipping period for avocados runs from September through December. In January, California hass volume is still relatively light.

If Mexican hass were in the mix throughout the U.S. market, the fruit could fill the gap between Chile’s peak and California’s big volume.

California will always have a position in the U.S. market because of its proximity to major U.S. markets.
“It doesn’t have to be a disaster,” the marketer said.

California avocado marketers have become more internationally attuned the past 10 years, with global investment and marketing agreements with producers in Chile, New Zealand and Mexico.

The recently approved Hass Avocado Board, which oversees funds from domestic and foreign companies that sell hass avocados in the U.S., will promote the commodity, not the country.

Other produce industry leaders have wondered aloud about the linkage of other trade tensions with Mexico with the avocado issue, from California tree fruit exports to the tariff on Washington red and golden delicious apples — not to mention U.S. grain and meat exports.

U.S. agriculture should have expectations that its interests will be protected if the USDA allows hass fruit to the U.S. Southwest.

On the other hand, California avocado growers will have an uphill fight in turning back the USDA’s intent.

The bottom line is that California avocado growers could see substantially more competition, and consumers in the U.S. Southwest could see a whole lot more hass fruit.

The USDA expects between 528 million and 849 million hass avocados will be imported from Mexico annually under the expanded distribution scenario.

That estimate represents five to seven times the amount imported in the 2001-02 season.

No one should be surprised when the door that was cracked open for Mexican hass in Alaska 11 years ago is flung wide open to the whole U.S. this year.