State and national officials Monday issued their latest declaration of victory in California's long campaign against the Mediterranean fruit fly, even as skeptics suggested that the announcement was based more on politics than science.
"This is a victory for California agriculture," said Gov. Pete Wilson, referring to the lifting of a quarantine--the last in the state--that restricted the movement of fruit within a 1,500-square-mile area encompassing most of the Los Angeles Basin. "Our efforts have been a success."
And in Orange County, growers and agricultural officials applauded the quarantine's end, predicting that it will mean fewer headaches for growers and packers.
"The bottom line is, hurray. It's good news," said Orange County Agricultural Commissioner Rick LeFeuvre.
But while Wilson was claiming that the blue-eyed insect had been banished by the most recent, $56-million campaign, skeptics saw the declaration as politically motivated and the latest in a series of victories that prove to be short-lived.
"This is just standard operating procedure," said Hawaii entomologist Roy Cunningham, who heads California's Mediterranean Fruit Fly Science Advisory Panel, a panel of experts that has had frequent run-ins with state policymakers.
The eradication, he said, "is not a permanent condition. Undoubtedly [the fly] will be reintroduced . . . by people smuggling [infested] fruit into the area either knowingly or unknowingly."
Cunningham said the medfly has been declared eradicated at least half a dozen different times in infestations throughout the state over the last 20 years, only to show up somewhere else. "Each one is a new battle, a new invasion," he said.
Another panel member, UC Davis entomologist James Carey, said he believes that the medfly is still here--albeit probably at low levels.
"In my view, the medfly is still established in the L.A. Basin," he said. "They've gone through this before--declare eradication and then it flares back up somewhere."
Carey said that politics and economics, fueled by the state's immense agriculture industry, have driven the effort to declare "victory" over what he called "an insidious chronic disease."
Critics of the state-funded medfly program contend that the California Department of Food and Agriculture is subsidizing farmers with tax money by paying for the fruit fly program, and that Monday's announcement is part of the state's plan to continue picking up the tab.
"The declaration of victory is a pat on the back, which is a way to line up the state funds for next year," said Harry Snyder, co-director of Consumers Union's West Coast office.
Although the small fly has returned again and again during its 21-year history in California, agriculture officials maintain that this time is different.
"The technology and ability to deal with the insect has matured and progressed," said Larry Hawkins, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Now we have a proven technology to eradicate the medfly, and we're going to use that technology in a preventive mode, hopefully to prevent another infestation."
Hawkins was referring to the Sterile Insect Technique program, in which hundreds of millions of sterile flies were released every week to mate with wild flies, the largest sterile insect release program in California history.
An elaborate trapping system that placed 25 traps per square mile within the quarantine zone has not turned up any medflies since July 1994, said John Connell, the head of the state's medfly containment program.
"From our perspective, there are no medflies in the L.A. Basin," Connell said.
The quarantine affected everything from a resident's gift basket of backyard vegetables to an Inland Empire grower's ability to ship fruit to the Pacific Rim out of the Long Beach port.
Residents were barred from moving any home-grown products off their property. Grocers were ordered to use netting, blasts of fresh air or plastics to keep the flies from laying eggs in fruit for sale. Residential landscapers and nursery owners were required to dispose of the backyard fruit that they grew according to state and federal guidelines.
Lifting the quarantine does not mean that Los Angeles is totally without restrictions, however. In the City Terrace area, agriculture officials said, residents are still barred from moving backyard fruit because of another, related pest: the Mexican fruit fly.
Connell said the state will switch into a prevention mode. There will be fewer sterile fly releases and an intensive public awareness campaign, which he said will cost the state about $7.7 million over the next three to four years, with matching federal funds.