FDACS pilot program could lead to increased ag imports

Federal and state agricultural officials will soon begin a policy assessment that could allow more imports into Florida of fresh produce from South American countries. Such shipments from certain countries have previously been banned because of pest and disease risks.

The decision to be made by Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will be based on the results of a six-month pilot program launched last October 1 that has allowed small shipments of blueberries and grapes from Peru and Uruguay to enter the U.S. via the Port of Miami and Port Everglades in Broward County.

The pilot program resulted from an initiative by the Florida Perishables Trade Coalition (FPTC), founded in January 2012 to increase trade in perishable products through Florida's seaports and airports. Although FPTC has support from some domestic shippers and wholesalers, it primarily represents the interests of South American growers and distributors.

"FPTC requested a meeting with us and with USDA to explore new products they want to bring in that were previously prohibited," explained Richard Gaskalla, director of FDACS's division of plant industry. "They talked about increasing trade. We talked about reducing pest risk. And we said, 'We have to have a balance here. If you want to do new things, we have to do it in such a way that we feel we are not doing things that will pose a threat to our agricultural industry.'"

FPTC proposed "a list of five or six different commodities from five or six different countries and we negotiated back and forth," Gaskalla said. "And we ultimately decided on grapes and blueberries from Peru and Uruguay as a test program."

The specific pest issue under scrutiny is "fruit flies of economic importance, with emphasis on the Mediterranean fruit fly," Gaskalla said.

In the past, shipments that could be infested by fruit flies have been directed to U.S. ports north of Virginia, such as Philadelphia, where colder climates for much of the year prevent the reproduction and spread of the flies.

The big underlying issue in the pilot program is the use of so-called "cold treatment" to ensure the safety of incoming shipments. Cold treatment exposes products to a low temperature for a prescribed number of days to kill fruit fly eggs and larvae.

After treatment, shipments must be inspected and approved by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol for shipment into the U.S.

In northern U.S. ports, cold treatment can be performed at a dockside warehouse after products are offloaded from ships. That is not allowed in Florida, because of its warmer climate and increased risk of pest introduction. Therefore, it must be done in a third party location while the products are en route.

During the pilot program, cold treatment has been performed at dockside facilities in Panama.

No fruit flies or other pests have been found in any of the shipments that entered Florida ports.

Beyond the question of product safety, the over-arching issue of the pilot program is the possibility of increased foreign competition for Florida growers.

Under existing international trade law, it would likely be deemed illegal to prevent foreign exporters from shipping produce into Florida or restricting when foreign products can be shipped into the state if the products are deemed safe by FDACS and USDA.

Gaskalla also noted that there are potential consumer benefits to increased foreign exports, such as lower prices or more fresh products being available for more of the year.

There has been no opposition from any Florida agricultural organization to the program, said

G.B. Crawford, spokesperson for Florida Farm Bureau Federation. "We have not heard any complaints or concerns about the program," he said. "Florida Farm Bureau's policies support free and fair trade. But we view the pilot program as a good faith effort to establish a viable system of pest and disease interdiction. And we support all initiatives that help prevent the introduction of agricultural pests and diseases into Florida. By eliminating these problems in their countries of origin, we protect the state's agricultural production and we benefit our international trade relations. We see the pilot program for blueberries and grapes as a step toward meeting those objectives."

Crawford agreed with Gaskalla that in the future, expanded imports could deliver consumer benefits. "There are always opportunities for additional products for Florida consumers and consumers around the U.S.," he said. "We support new opportunities for food purchases by consumers. Of course, our first priority is support for our domestic farmers and ranchers. But we also want consumers to have the best bargains available to them for their diets."

FDACS will begin its review of the pilot program results with USDA next month.