At the Virginia Park farmers market in Santa Monica, inspectors Nina Barboza,… (David Karp / For The Times )
As shoppers arrive at the Santa Monica farmers market this morning, usually the busiest market of the year, they may be surprised to see much of the produce swathed in netting, the most visible evidence of a quarantine that was declared last week by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, after the discovery of Mediterranean fruit flies at a location in eastern Santa Monica.
To comply with the new regulations, which affect 17 farmers markets on the Westside, growers have to cover host produce with insect-proof netting, which must be suspended above the display so that the bugs can't lay eggs in the fruits. Host produce includes most fruits (except strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and melons), and also three vegetables: tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. After market's close, farmers will not be allowed to bring unsold fruit home or transport it outside the quarantine area, so they will have to donate or dump unsold items.
At last Saturday's Santa Monica Pico market, two teams of state and federal agricultural inspectors stopped by each stand to get the vendors to sign compliance agreements for the quarantine. Vendors were resigned -- most of them have dealt with such quarantines before, and they don't have any choice if they want to continue to sell at affected markets. But naturally they were less than thrilled. "I don't like the netting, it's a pain in the behind," said Maria Cabral, a vegetable grower from Riverside. "Customers don't understand, and sales go down."
Backyard fruit grown in the quarantine area may well be infested and should definitely not be moved, but consumers should not worry that the fruit they buy at farmers markets will contain bugs. "There's no need to be fearful of buying fruit from farmers markets," said Lawrence Hawkins, a USDA spokesman. "It comes from a pest-free area, has been properly safeguarded and is perfectly wholesome."
Agricultural authorities are combating the infestation by releasing 2.25 million sterile Medflies a week into the eradication area, nine square miles within the 65 square miles of the quarantine district, which encompasses Santa Monica and nearby communities, said Anthony Jackson, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture's team fighting this infestation.
The quarantine will remain in effect for three life cycles of the fly, which can vary in duration, depending on temperature. The whole process can take more than six months, and that's assuming that no new discoveries of fertile Medflies are made, said Nawal Sharma, who directs regional quarantine efforts for the CDFA.
Authorities will be putting up posters at affected markets to inform shoppers and advise how to avoid spreading Medflies. While the quarantine is in effect, consumers should stop composting or placing unconsumed host fruits in green bins, and instead dispose of them by double-bagging them in plastic bags and putting the bags in the garbage bin for collection. Residents of the zone are urged not to move any fruits or vegetables from their property. There won't be any fruit police checking cars at the borders of the quarantine area, but "in a perfect world we don't want you to take fruit out of the quarantine zone," Jackson said.
In practice, it seems likely that some shoppers who live outside the quarantine will buy fruit at affected markets and take it home; if they didn't, sales would decline drastically at certain venues, and some farmers and markets might even go out of business. However, consumers can reduce the risk of spreading Medflies by consuming host produce from farmers markets within a week of purchase, shorter than the time it would take for eggs to hatch.