( File photo )

(UPDATED, Aug. 13) Plant health officials in Colombia have declared a national emergency after declaring the presence of the banana disease  Fusarium wilt tropical race 4  (TR4) in La Guajira.

Banana exports will continue, since the quality and nutrition of the fruit isn’t hurt by the disease.

The banana industry will segregate the handling of containers and vehicles that transport bananas in areas where the disease has been detected, according to the Colombian Agricultural Institute.

Only about 430 acres were discovered with the Fusarium race 4 fungus, and nearly 400 acres of bananas from that area have already been eradicated. No signs of the disease have been seen in other parts of the country, according to the group.

With the assistance of a laboratory in the Netherlands, the group said tests are being carried out to indicate where the disease came.

Because Colombia exports bananas to the U.S. and the European Union -countries that do not produce the fruit - Colombian officials said there is no risk of the disease spreading to those countries. In addition, fruit does not transmit the fungus, according to the group.

Industry observers have said that a major outbreak of TR4 in Latin America could drive up banana prices globally.  

In comments during a second-quarter earnings call July 30 — before official confirmation of the disease by Colombia plant health officials on Aug. 8 —  Mohammad Abu-Ghazaleh, chairman and CEO of Fresh Del Monte Produce, said the fungus could have a dramatic effect on the banana industry.

Because the disease can take two to four years to express itself in banana plants, he said it was possible that TR4 could have already spread to Latin American growing regions. While banana-producing countries and banana companies are taking measures to safeguard the production of bananas from the disease, he said it is possible the disease will spread widely.

“I believe that what is happening, seeing it (in) different countries around the world that have this disease, that you need to coexist with it,” he said. However, small and medium-sized growers that don’t have the means and tools to be able to cope with the disease could be ruined.

“I have always said that banana (supply) will be rationalized, not by logical measures but by this disease,” he said. “I’m not saying tomorrow or next year, but in five or ten years from now, there might be a drastic reduction in banana supply from Central America, which will translate into much higher prices.”

Abu-Ghazaleh said he predicted many years ago that a carton of bananas could someday hit $100.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see that,” he said.

Fyffes has issued a question and answer document on the disease.