New State Standards for Plums Criticized by Consumer Groups

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Department of Food and Agriculture on Wednesday announced marketing orders for plums, which consumer advocates said would result in tighter supplies and higher prices for the fruit.

The marketing order gives a state-appointed committee of plum farmers the right to set appearance standards for the fruit. Plums not meeting the standards--those with a spot of sunburn, for example--cannot be legally sold, though they are edible.

Although the marketing order applies only to shipments of California-grown plums, its impact reaches beyond the state, as California accounts for 88% of U.S. plum production. California plum sales topped $63 million in 1993.

Influential plum growers have argued that marketing orders are needed to keep unripe fruit off the market. They said sales suffer when consumers disappointed by poor-quality plums refuse to buy more.

Consumer advocates and a minority of plum growers say few growers sell unripe fruit. They contend marketing orders are mechanisms for controlling the price and supply of plums, at the expense of consumers and competitors who want to sell less-than-perfect-looking fruit.

"I know of no other industry where groups of competitors are allowed to dictate to everyone else how much they can sell and what consumers will have access to," said plum grower Dan Gerawan, who two years ago ran afoul of federal marketing orders barring sale of undersized nectarines and peaches. "It is like McDonald's and Taco Bell getting together to decide Burger King's sales."

Consumer advocates have argued that beauty standards for plums may mean that up to 10% of the crop will be destroyed every year.

Consumers probably won't see much of an impact immediately, given the controversy over the marketing orders, said Harry Snyder, co-director of the West Coast office of Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

"They are probably too smart to limit the amount getting to consumers this year," he said. "In future years, farmers and handlers and packing houses will decide what kind of plums we can get and how we can get them. It will result in higher prices, less choice and destruction of edible fruit.'

Plum marketing orders in California have a tangled history. Federal marketing orders for plums were lifted in 1991 amid charges of favoritism on the part of the committee of plum growers administering them. In a 4-year-old federal lawsuit still pending, four large plum growers allege that the committee manipulated the "color standards" to keep their competitors' fruit off the market. Farmers on the committee deny the allegations.

Poor plum seasons led some farmers to seek reinstatement of marketing orders. The push for state marketing orders in turn inspired state legislation outlawing the orders, now before the Assembly Agriculture Committee. It is supported by Consumers Union and opposed by many agricultural groups.

Melvin Enns, a plum grower and proponent of the state marketing order, said color is one element of the new appearance standards. He said the new standards would have two tiers, rather than one under the old federal marketing order. This would allow farmers to sell plums not meeting the highest level for appearance standards.

Enns estimated that three-quarters of plums sold by California farmers already meet the highest standard, known as California well-mature.

Enns said he didn't know whether the marketing orders would affect consumer prices. "There are so many variables involved in what a supermarket charges," he said.

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