(Jan. 28) Mexican avocado exporters allege the California Department of Food and Agriculture obstructed fruit shipments to California almost immediately after consumers there could buy the Mexican fruit for the first time in decades, resulting in lost sales and a damaged reputation.

APEAM, the exporter group based in the Mexican state of Michoacan, filed a lawsuit in Sacramento on Jan. 11, asking for $6 million in damages.

Exporters claim the department illegally inspected and turned away trucks transporting Mexican avocados into California, and are asking for $4 million in lost profits and compensation for $2 million spent on advertising and marketing to restore the damaged reputation of the fruit.

Mexican avocados were allowed entry to the lucrative California market on Feb. 1, 2007. Later that month, the agriculture department rejected 11 truckloads of the fruit, citing presence of live scale insects. Subsequent tests contradicted whether the insects were native to California, but the lawsuit claims problems continued throughout the summer.

Emiliano Escobedo, a Los Angeles-based APEAM representative, said the suit seeks damages for fumigation expenses, diversion of fruit that was turned away from California to other markets and lost profits.

He said, however, that despite the delays the Mexican avocado industry still had an extremely productive year in 2007.

“From July to December the supplies of avocados into the U.S. from Mexico doubled compared to the previous year,” Escobedo said.

Escobedo said there were several barriers to entry, the primary one being required fumigation for armored scale insects.

Guy Whitney, director of the California Avocado Commission, Irvine, said infestation in Mexican avocados remains a serious issue that cannot be ignored. He said a team of entomologists from the University of California-Riverside, headed by Joseph Morse, professor of entomology, continues to randomly inspect boxes of avocados at the state border.

“We’re looking at what the levels of armored scales are in a box and extrapolate it up, assuming the same numbers are in all the boxes,” Morse said. “That’s risky, but what else can you do, inspect the entire truck? I don’t think the shippers would allow that.”

He said if high levels of insects were to get into the state they could damage fruit trees and, in rare instances, some species could kill the trees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection service ruled scales do not pose a threat. In July, the CDFA issued a Pest Exclusion Advisory, ordering inspectors to stop rejecting commercial shipments even if the scales were present.

“It’s not about if they have bugs or not, but are any of the bugs on commercial shipments harmful enough to break federal law? No, they are not,” Escobedo said.

“That made no sense to me,” Morse said. “We’re quite concerned about the danger. I realize that APHIS has ruled that they don’t think it’s a danger, but my personal opinion is that’s ridiculous.”

OTHER LAWSUITS

In April, the California Avocado Commission sued the USDA in an attempt to stop the Mexican avocados from entering California. In June, APEAM countersued, claiming the commission’s suit was part of a smear campaign against the Mexican fruit. Then in July, APEAM sued the California agriculture department to keep it from disrupting the movement of hass avocados from Mexico.

Tom Bellamore, senior vice president and corporate counsel for the California commission, said its lawsuit against the USDA was settled Sept. 3, and would not comment on the specifics of the settlement.

“When the court learned of the settlement with USDA, it dismissed the counterclaim, so there is no action at the moment involving the commission,” he said.

Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for CDFA, said the exporters’ lawsuit is being studied and he could not comment on it or the department’s inspection policies.