A crackdown on the sale of imported kaffir lime leaves in the Los Angeles area has emptied most Asian markets of the leaves, which are used primarily in Thai cooking.
Foreign-raised kaffir lime leaves and fruit are prohibited in California because they may harbor citrus canker and other diseases that would endanger the state's citrus crop.
There is no prohibition against domestically raised kaffir leaves and fruit, says Allen Clark, program supervisor, pest exclusion branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. However, stores must provide paperwork that indicates the origin; otherwise domestic leaves will be confiscated as well.
Clark says that kaffir lime leaves and fruit have been under federal quarantine for about 20 years. Leaves smuggled in from Southeast Asia have been found recently in local markets, and this has prompted the crackdown.
Jet Tilakamonkul of the Bangkok Market in Los Angeles protests the removal. "All [the leaves] the local stores carry are locally grown. We don't import kaffir lime leaves at all," he says. The mom and pop growers who supply the stores aren't likely to have much paperwork to document, he says.
Clark responds that agents will accept "anything, as long as it is legible" and enables them to trace the source.
Agricultural officials theorize that the illegally imported leaves are transported through Canada to states with less stringent quarantine laws and then smuggled into California.
"We would like to have them enterable legally," says Robert Atkins, chief deputy of the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner weights and measures department. But to date, there is no treatment that will make the leaves and fruit pest-free.
Atkins and Clark report that imported Sichuan peppercorns are also prohibited. Atkins explains that, although not citrus themselves, the peppercorns belong to the citrus family, and can carry the same citrus diseases as kaffir limes.