The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday that it is lifting an 83-year-old ban on the importation of Mexican avocados into the continental United States, angering California growers fearful of pest invasions.
After two years of emotional debate, the department ruled that Hass avocados from the Mexican region of Michoacan that meet U.S. import requirements could be shipped into 19 states in the Northeast and Midwest from November through February, beginning late this year. No shipments to California will be allowed.
The avocados will be subject to a nine-step program of monitoring in Mexico and at the border, which is designed to forestall entry into this country of any potentially lethal pests. Only avocados from approved orchards will be allowed.
Mexican officials hailed the decision as a sign of good faith in the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But Southland farmers, who produce more than 90% of the 300 million pounds of avocados eaten by Americans every year, continued to protest that such a decision could foster an invasion of Mexican fruit flies, seed weevils and other pests that could devastate their own orchards.
Californians fear that cheaper Mexican imports would give rise to a black market that would encourage illegal shipments of the creamy fruit to California, possibly endangering crops here.
"We don't have a lot of confidence in the setting up of pest-free zones in Mexico," said Steve Taft, president and owner of Eco Farms in Temecula. "The USDA can barely take care of what they're doing now. I just don't see how they're going to do it."
American consumers stand to benefit from the increased competition. Analysts have estimated that, depending on their volume, Mexican avocado imports could drive down U.S. prices by as much as 17% by 2010. This country already imports small amounts of avocados from Chile.
Importation of fresh avocados from Mexico has been banned since 1914, when U.S. plant health officials first identified seed weevils in Mexican orchards as threats to U.S. crops.
In 1993, the Department of Agriculture began allowing the entry of Mexican avocados into Alaska under certain conditions. Two years later, the USDA proposed to allow imports into certain areas of the United States.
The issue has been a source of bitter contention, with Mexico threatening to retaliate by restricting imports of big-ticket U.S. farm products. The U.S. farming community, meanwhile, split on the issue, with California and Florida avocado producers pitted against farmers who sell corn and wheat to Mexico and favored a relaxation of restrictions.
In a statement issued Friday, the USDA said it no longer considered Mexican avocados a big threat.
"After careful scientific analysis and extensive review . . . we have determined that if the imported Mexican avocados meet all of our safeguards, they will not pose a significant risk of introducing an exotic plant pest into the United States," said Alfred Elder, with the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Mexican representatives lauded the decision.
"We are very satisfied," said Enrique Bautista, president of the Avocado Commission of the state of Michoacan. "This is a sign of good faith on the part of the U.S. government, and it shows that the spirit of NAFTA is working."
Jaime Zabludovsky, Mexico's assistant secretary of commerce, said that "Mexico has been exporting avocados all over the world for many decades." He added that "these products have been completely safe."
The California Farm Bureau Federation, though cautioning that it has not yet analyzed the new rule, echoed grower Taft's concern that the USDA would not have the resources to inspect avocado shipments.
"There are a lot of these phytosanitary issues," said Cherie Watte, the Farm Bureau's director of national affairs. Globally, "phytosanitary" issues of plant and animal safety--encompassing such recent problems as "mad cow" disease in Britain, karnal bunt in U.S. wheat and European protests over genetically engineered feed--are supplanting tariffs as key trade concerns, she said.
The California Avocado Commission, which led the charge against the lifting of the ban, said Friday that it is studying the new rule and would issue a statement on Monday.
Roberta Cook, a marketing economist at UC Davis, said the commission has invested heavily of late in promotion efforts designed to expand the avocado market.
"They are understandably concerned about the ability of imports to free-ride on their investment," she said.
States that will be allowed to import Mexican avocados are Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Groves reported from Los Angeles and Sheridan from Mexico City.