A proposal by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to allow food irradiation facilities to operate in 15 states in the South could be very good news for importers and consumers who have a taste for fresh produce year-round.

The agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture published the proposed rule in the Federal Register on Sept. 29.

Comments will be accepted through Nov. 28. Instructions on how to comment are included in the proposed rule online at http://tinyurl.com/irradiate-imports.

The APHIS proposal states that the agency has received a petition for permission to open an irradiation facility in McAllen, Texas, to treat foods coming into the U.S. and those being moved from state to state.

The proposal did not state who had filed the petition, and agency staff were not immediately available for comment.

Positive implications

Regardless of who wants to operate such facilities, the construction of irradiation facilities along the southern border of the U.S. would have very positive implications, said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas.

Jungmeyer cited fresh guavas and papayas as two commodities that could particularly benefit from such facilities.

There is a growing market in the U.S. for fresh guavas from Mexico and that any move by APHIS to expand technological applications to remove marketplace restrictions would be good news, he said.

“For papayas, there is a hot water treatment required, which ruins the flavor of the papaya,” Jungmeyer said. “If irradiation was an approved treatment and there were facilities to take care of that, it would help grow that market in the U.S.”

Three southern maritime port cities already are approved to have irradiation facilities to treat incoming fresh produce — Gulfport, Miss., Wilmington, N.C., and Atlanta — but no one has built facilities.

Cost an obstacle

Cost is likely a factor, Jungmeyer said.

According to the University of Wisconsin Food Irradiation Education Group, the cost of a new facility would be at least $3 million to $5 million, depending on size and production volume.

Fred Brown, a partner at the consulting firm Kalypso who specializes in food and beverage safety and traceability, said a co-op approach is a likely possibility.

Import companies could join forces to share the costs and benefits of opening an irradiation facility, he said.

In addition to proposing that irradiation facilities be allowed in 15 southern states, APHIS also proposes to establish “generic phytosanitary criteria” to replace criteria that are on the books for the three approved port cities.

The 15 states in the proposal are: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Red flags

The entire proposal has raised red flags for watchdog groups such as the Food & Water Watch.

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of that group responded almost immediately with a news release citing concerns about possible contamination of U.S. growing operations.

“The primary reason for this proposed rule is to allow the entry of fruits and vegetables that are currently not allowed into the country because of concerns that fruit flies and exotic pests present on them are a threat to U.S. agriculture,” Hauter’s release stated.

“The rule ... poses unacceptable risks to U.S. consumers, farmers and the environment.”