Mexican avocado importers push for 50-state access

07/19/2004 12:00:00 AM
Jim Offner

(July 19) Proponents of a rule that would allow Mexican hass avocados into all 50 states year-round stepped up their efforts to get the rule passed as the deadline on public comment period on the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal approached.

The public has until July 23 to file comments on a USDA proposal to allow the year-round import of Mexican hass avocados from approved orchards in Michoacan, Mexico.

The agency issued the proposal May 24.

CONSUMPTION INCREASE

The USDA has said that the changes would result in a 10% increase in U.S. avocado consumption, a 267% increase in Mexican avocado exports to the U.S. and a 25% decline in producer prices for California growers.

Mexican hass now are allowed into 31 states from Oct. 15 to April 15 — a product of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the mid-1990s.

Mexico exports about 38.5 million pounds of avocados to the U.S., compared to the 400 million pounds produced by 6,000 growers on 50,000 acres in California — the largest avocado-producing state in the U.S.

“Of course, the growers don’t want to get less dollars per pound,” said Cruz Carrera, a salesman for Oxnard, Calif.-based Mission Produce Inc., which sells avocados from Mexico and California. “They want to make as much as possible.”

FRUIT FLIES

But the real battleground of late has been over fruit flies. Proponents of the rule changes insist that studies conducted by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that avocados from Mexico are not hosts for the pests.

“The growers are fighting for their livelihood out there, which is understandable,” said Mike Brown, president of Fresh Directions International, a Ventura, Calif.-based company that imports as much as 12% of Mexico’s exported avocados. “Although they’re using anecdotal science, their real issue is economics. The presence of pests has not been found. They’ve cut over 10 million pieces of fruit since 1997, and they haven’t found anything. We’ve brought thousands of trucks in since then, and they’ve found nothing.”

However, Mark Affleck, president of the Irvine-based California Avocado Commission, said that testing procedures are not designed to handle the volumes anticipated by the proposed changes.

“Keep in mind that, as the program increases, you test the mitigation steps at new levels,” he said. “As volume goes up, the nine-step mitigation system in place by USDA is tested exponentially. We’ve never put this system to the kinds of volume pressures that would result in opening up all 50 steps. That’s why prudence would suggest that you wait on California and Florida until you find the cutting numbers and success of the previous program holds under the new circumstances.”

Careful steps are needed, Affleck said.

“Prudence would suggest you’d wait before bringing it into the backyard until you’re sure there’s no problem,” he said. “No one in this industry is saying that this should be forever. We’re just saying this ought to be done on a step-by-step prudent scientific track. That’s our position.”

Fears about pests and a potential weight on prices are unfounded, Brown said.

“Mexico is a very well-organized industry; the people there have a very fine-tuned organization,” he said.



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