(Sept. 23) SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal and state resources are being poured into a major Mediterranean fruit fly infestation in Mexico less than 7 miles from the U.S. border.

So far, the pest is confined to Mexico. Officials discovered the infestation Sept. 15 in Tijuana 6½ miles south of California, said Larry Hawkins, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Impact to domestic produce supplies isn’t a factor at this point although some 250 crops — commercial and backyard — are threatened by the pest and its produce-eating larvae.

The U.S. is concentrating its efforts into the infestation because of the threat it has to U.S. crops, particularly in California and Arizona.

Crops just inside California include cucumbers, limes, strawberries, tomatoes and zucchini.

“The bulk of the crops are the cucumber and squash and are within about 5 miles of the border,” said Dawn Nielsen, San Diego deputy agricultural commissioner.

“This is as serious as I can recall,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter, about the pest threat.

Nelsen said this could have a huge economic impact on both the agricultural industry and state’s finances.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is taking appropriate action with the situation, but there is a need to make sure the funds are available to support these efforts, Nelsen said.

“It is a two-fold effort, first to eradicate the pest and second to control contraband coming across the border,” he said.

“The Medfly is a serious threat to agriculture,” said A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the CDFA, in a news release. “We must act quickly to continue to ensure a safe, secure food supply.”

An infestation could decimate California’s produce industry. An infestation could cost nearly $2 billion because of increased pesticide use, job loss, crop loss and trade embargoes in treating the establishment of the Medfly, according to the CDFA.

Hawkins said Mexican officials are implementing an infestation protocol that is similar to the program U.S. follows in such a case.

The CDFA is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the San Diego County agricultural commissioner’s office, the Mexican national agricultural agency (SAGARPA) and the Baja California Department of Agriculture.

Hawkins said the task force of agencies is focused on five strategies to battle the spread of a Medfly infestation:

  • Delimiting the boundaries of the infestation with the use of increased trappings.

  • Stripping fruit from trees in Mexico to kill larvae that may be feeding on mature fruit.

  • Ground baits to draw Medfly adults that die from the fatal bait.

  • Releasing millions of sterile male Medflies to disrupt the mating cycle.

  • Regulating a quarantine in Mexico to restrict the movement of host material.

All of these efforts are taking place in Mexico and the border area. California started releasing sterile Medflies Sept. 22 and is increasing its inspection of crops in Southern California. Trappings also are being boosted to alert officials of potential threats.

If the pest moves into the U.S., a 4½ mile radius quarantine will be put in place around the detection site.

Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz., said the infestation is a mild inconvenience at this point for Mexican importers, but volumes will increase.

Tijuana is an important source for small wholesalers in Los Angeles, Frankel said.

The Medfly outbreak comes at a pivotal time for Mexican avocados. A USDA decision on allowing Mexican avocados into all 50 U.S. states year-round is pending. Currently, 31 states are permitted to receive the fruit during six months of the year.

The California avocado industry has strongly opposed the opening, citing the pest’s threats to avocados and other commodities.

Because California borders Mexico, it would seem the threat would increase if added deliveries of such items as Mexican avocados were to occur, said Tom Bellamore, senior vice president of the California Avocado Commission, Irvine.

The USDA said this situation will have no bearing on the pending protocol for Mexican avocados.

Medfly infestation close to U.S. border
The pest has been found 6½ miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border.