Critics charge the decision -- to prevent the spread of citrus canker -- has no scientific basis
By Anne Harding | June 22, 2006
The US Department of Agriculture plans to ban Florida from shipping fresh citrus fruit to other citrus-growing states in order to halt the spread of citrus canker. But critics say the semi-quarantine, set for the upcoming shipping season this fall, isn?t needed to prevent canker spread, and the USDA is instead simply setting up a trade barrier for the state.
?Scientifically, it?s safe to ship this fruit as long as it?s been washed and waxed the way [Florida government regulators] propose to do it,? Dean Gabriel, a professor of plant pathology and citrus canker expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told The Scientist.
?The fact of the matter is USDA?s own scientists have concluded that asymptomatic fruit -- that is, fruit with no evidence of disease -- is not a pathway toward the spread of citrus canker,? Terence McElroy, press secretary for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Tallahassee, told The Scientist. McElroy said the state, along with citrus growers, is looking into having the decision overturned.
McElroy added that growers who make their living selling fresh fruit rely heavily on the markets that are set to be closed off, and will be hurt badly. He suggested that the agency, in making this decision, may even be bowing to pressure from other citrus growing states. ?The USDA acknowledges having extensive discussions with California, Texas and other states whose industries are competitive with ours? to come up with the plan, he said.
But the USDA stands by its plan, announced in a June 6 statement. ?This option was what we decided on finally because it provided the greatest level of scientific certainty to safeguard other citrus-producing states from citrus canker while protecting Florida?s citrus trade,? Hallie Pickhardt, a spokesperson for the USDA?s Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service based in Riverdale, Maryland, told The Scientist. ?We?ve acted similarly to keep diseases and pests out of the state of Florida,? she added.
Citrus canker, which is spread by rain splash, has become so widespread in Florida that the government called a halt this January to eradication efforts. Ninety percent of Florida?s citrus is used to make juice, and fruit affected by canker can still be used for juicing.
Gabriel said that canker is not a major danger for drier states like California and Texas, which are among the 11 US states and territories that USDA plans to block from receiving Florida citrus.
Speaking of the ban, Gabriel added, ?over canker I can?t see it, but over something like greening I can. That?s a real serious disease.? Citrus greening, first spotted in the state in 2005, kills citrus trees and has wiped out citrus industries in many countries.
Fresh fruit from areas in Florida where canker is known to be prevalent have been under quarantine since 1995, McElroy said. ?Any areas that have been under quarantine can still use fruit for juice, but they?ve never been able to ship out fresh fruit,? he added. ?We understand that and that?s good science.?
The USDA?s Pickhardt said the planned quarantine has not been finalized and would be temporary, after which the agency would revisit it to determine whether it should be extended. The ban will protect other states? citrus growing industries, and won?t harm Florida?s, she said. ?We have preserved 97.5% of Florida?s market for fresh fruit.?
Links within this article
A.Harding, ?Pathogens put squeeze on Florida citrus industry,? The Scientist, April 28, 2006.
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
"USDA determines citrus canker eradication not feasible," Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, January 11, 2006.