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Ventura County

Ban on Citrus Imports Upheld

Agriculture: Farmers in county are pleased that Argentine fruit will continue to be barred from U.S. markets.

April 14, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County growers cheered a decision that continues a ban on the importation of Argentine citrus until new studies prove that the imports pose no risk to the domestic market.

The U.S. Justice Department dropped its appeal last week of a court ruling suspending the importation program, clearing the way for a new round of studies.

"I think this validates the concerns we've had and shows that our arguments are legitimate," said Link Leavens, a farmer who manages 700 acres of lemons and avocados in Ventura County. "We're not opposed to [importation], we just want it to be fair and safe."

Citing concerns about pests and disease, growers from across the country filed suit last year seeking to overturn a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow Argentine fruit into certain regions of the country.

A U.S. District Court judge in Fresno blocked the shipments last fall, saying that agricultural officials failed to adequately assess the risk of disease from the imports to the domestic market.

Judge Robert E. Coyle ruled that the USDA must conduct a more thorough risk analysis and provide evidence that the imports would not harm the nation's citrus growers before shipments continued.

The Justice Department immediately announced plans to appeal the ruling but dropped that bid last week.

More than 1 million cartons of Argentine lemons, oranges and grapefruits have been shipped into the United States since the importation program began in the summer of 2000.

The fruit was immediately allowed into 34 states, and after four years could have been sent directly to the nation's five citrus-producing states, including California and Arizona.

The Santa Paula-based U.S. Citrus Science Council led the charge against the program, arguing that the USDA had not done enough to safeguard the nation's $2.5-billion citrus industry.

"The Justice Department's decision to drop its appeal closes this chapter on a bad proposal originating with the previous [presidential] administration," said Joel Nelsen, co-chairman of the science council, which represents more than 5,000 growers.

"We look forward to working with this administration to establish a science-based proposal that fully protects the domestic citrus industry from devastating pests and diseases," he said.

"Clearly the path forged by California citrus producers is one that will benefit growers throughout the country."

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