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Ventura County

Suit Aims to Halt Import of Mexican Avocados

Agriculture: Growers say federal ruling allowing the fruit into the U.S. could unleash pests on the state's crop.

January 29, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's avocado growers have filed suit seeking to stop the importation of Mexican avocados, saying it could unleash a host of crop-destroying pests on domestic markets.

The lawsuit by the California Avocado Commission contends that a decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the importation violated federal law, because the USDA didn't fully study the infestation risks.

Under the import program, approved by the USDA in 1997 and expanded last year, Mexico is allowed to ship avocados to 31 states from October through March. California is not one of them.

But in avocado-rich regions such as Ventura County, where the fruit generated $73 million in sales and was the fifth leading cash crop in 2000, that decision does not sit well with growers already battling bugs.

"We can't afford any more imported pests," said veteran grower Roger Essick, who farms 200 acres of avocados in Ojai and Fillmore and serves on the avocado commission's board of directors. "It's incredibly serious; we're talking about the future of our industry."

For decades, the USDA enforced a federal law that prohibited the importation of fruits and vegetables from places known to be infested with pests not prevalent in the United States, according to the suit filed last month in U.S. District Court in Fresno.

But in 1997, when the USDA allowed avocados from the Mexican state of Michoacan to enter the country, it used a "new and unproven" approach that relies on inspections and shipping restrictions to prevent pests from entering, the lawsuit states.

Mexico initially was allowed to ship avocados between November and February to 19 Northeastern states. The USDA took the importation program a step further last year, allowing Mexican avocados to be sold from October through March and as far west as Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Studies have identified eight pests in Mexican groves that have not yet gained a foothold in domestic orchards. The lawsuit contends that the imports also endanger other domestic produce, such as citrus, apple and cherry crops.

"As it pertains to risk assessment, we believe that the way the USDA has gone about its decision-making is simply wrong," said Richard Rossier, a Washington attorney representing the avocado commission.

The commission is a state-mandated agency created to promote and protect the interests of California's 6,000 avocado growers.

A USDA spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

But in the past, agency officials have said they have conducted an in-depth assessment of the importation program and concluded that there would be a minimal threat to California's groves.

Since the program began, thousands of weevils and fruit flies have been trapped in the groves of areas in Mexico approved for such shipments, according to the California Avocado Commission.

Moreover, current fruit-cutting techniques for Mexican avocados cannot detect eggs or the early larval states of the fruit fly, the commission said. It says that is a critical deficiency when it comes to the expansion that took place last year.

The original program only allowed shipments into the Northeast during winter months, under the belief that cold weather would kill any bugs that happened to hitch a ride from Mexico into the U.S.

But under the expanded program, shipments are now going to states with warmer climates, where pests might be better able to establish a foothold. And fruit can be shipped later in the year, meaning Mexican avocados could stay in the distribution system well into the summer months, further increasing infestation risks.

If California groves became infested, it could cost more than $500 million to control an outbreak and lead to import restrictions, resulting in statewide job and monetary losses, the commission said.

For those reasons, the avocado commission took the unprecedented step of filing suit against the USDA. And it's for those reasons that growers in Ventura County, the state's second-largest avocado growing region, will be watching closely as the case unfolds.

"We've seen in past years how [uncontrolled] pests can cause huge economic consequences to agriculture," said Santa Paula avocado grower Richard Pidduck,referring to a 1994 Mediterranean fruit fly discovery near Camarillo.

The medfly infestation caused more than $50 million in damage to area growers and prompted foreign importers to consider enacting an embargo on crops from the county.

"I think it can be understood why we are a little bit gunshy," Pidduck said. "Pest introduction can very quickly develop huge economic ramifications.

"Beyond the fact that we have to figure out how to get them out of our orchards, it can destroy markets."

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