When the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided in June to alter its fruit and vegetable regulations allowing for the importation of Argentina’s citrus produce, Sen. Barbara Boxer and thousands of California growers responded with legislation and a lawsuit.
The purpose of both was to prevent lemons, oranges and grapefruits grown in regions of Argentina once contaminated by a devastating plant disease called citrus canker from entering the United States.
While the lawsuit is still pending, Boxer’s legislation, in the form of an amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations bill, was dropped by Congress Tuesday.
In a written statement to Congress, Republican Appropriations committee members said enacting Boxer’s amendment “would invite retaliation against U.S. agricultural exports.”
A provision of the failed amendment would have prevented the USDA rule from using funding to support the shipment of Argentine citrus to the United States.
Also considering the long-term economic impact, Boxer said this is the first time produce is being allowed into the United States from a country whose product suffers from a disease problem.
Concerned that Argentine imports could ultimately jeopardize the health of citrus crops throughout the nation, Boxer expressed her disappointment in the amendment’s defeat.
“I am very disappointed that the Republican-dominated conference committee failed to stand up for the health and safety of the American people,” she said.
“I am glad the citrus industry is pursuing this matter through the legal system.”
In July 5,000 growers in California and Arizona filed a lawsuit against the USDA in the hopes of overturning the department’s recent decision to permit the distribution of Argentina’s citrus in the United States.
According to a summary of that decision, the USDA has put into effect a limited distribution plan that will delay the entry of the foreign fruit into commercial citrus producing areas until May or June of 2004.
In the meantime, the fruit has already begun to be distributed to the 34 states that surround, but do not border, Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
Until the outcome of the lawsuit is determined, Boxer said she is calling upon American produce buyers to do what Congress has failed to do, “Keep this citrus off the shelves.”
Although the highly contagious citrus canker is not harmful to humans-it’s deadly to the trees it contaminates.
Florida Department of Agriculture continues to defend the state’s $8.5 billion dollar citrus industry against the disease which has plagued it since 1995.
Florida Department of Agriculture spokesperson Terry McElroy estimates that the state will have spent more than $250 million by the time the disease is finally eradicated.
“We should have the problem wrapped up in the next three months,” he said.