(Nov. 5, STAFF COLUMN) The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Oct. 25 issued a notice that the comment period is being reopened Nov. 26 on proposed changes to the effective date of the Coachella Valley grape marketing order.

This rule making, while seemingly obscure, is quite important.

Marketing order mandatory minimum quality standards in place for domestic produce also apply to imports.

In this case, the recommendation to move the effective date of the Coachella Valley grape marketing order from April 20 to April 1 would mean that imported grapes entering the U.S. after April 1 must pass the minimum marketing order standards.

The rule making, which began in May 2005, has been extended time and time again. It is time for the USDA either to issue a final rule after this comment period or walk away from the rule.

The history of this rule making shows that the interests of Coachella Valley growers, consumers, retailers and Chilean exporters are all in play.

Chilean exporters have said that moving up the regulatory date for mandatory minimum quality standards would create a supply gap in the transition between Southern Hemisphere and North American fruit. Chilean export advocates also say the USDA must consider the economic health of Coachella Valley growers in the decision to move the date — something that they say the department has ignored.

Chilean exporters say far less fruit would be sent to the U.S. because exporters would fear big losses if the grapes did not clear the No. 1 standard after April 1.

Meanwhile, the USDA and California growers have statistical arguments to support their view that the effective date should be moved. Moving the date back would not allow as many substandard imported grapes to be marketed from storage. Such storage grapes have the potential to damage the Coachella Valley marketing season.

The USDA said voluntary inspections performed on Chilean grapes imported into the Port of Philadelphia from April 1 to April 19 showed a failure rate of 82%. The inspections were performed on an average of 32% of the total grapes imported during the period.

Having so much inferior product in the marketplace could steer consumers away from grapes for several weeks. Just as the U.S. deal is about to get underway, this would prove problematic for early Coachella shipments.

Clearly, the industry needs to provide direction to the agency during this reopened comment period.

In that spirit, we urge all parts of the industry to make their voices heard.