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USDA bars shipments of Florida citrus fruits

/ Source: The Associated Press

The federal government Tuesday barred Florida citrus growers from sending fresh fruit to other citrus-producing states this season, fearing diseases that have damaged crops here would spread elsewhere.

The move comes at a crucial time for Florida's industry as officials continue working on a plan to manage diseases like canker and greening, which blemish fruit, kill trees and have been difficult to contain.

Florida officials said they were blindsided by the federal Department of Agriculture announcement, though it's not immediately clear how much it will hurt the industry. About 90 percent of Florida citrus is processed into juice, while only fresh fruit is affected by the new rule.

Jim Rogers, spokesman for the USDA Plant and Animal Inspection Service, said other states concerned about their own industries requested the protection.

"Our options were to quarantine the entire state, let the state ship wherever it wants or find something in the middle," Rogers said. "What we've got is this plan."

It's also not clear how long the interim rule would last beyond this harvesting season, which begins in August.

"We were surprised, stunned," Florida Agriculture Department spokeswoman Liz Compton said. "We had proposed an option that would have allowed shipment of fresh citrus to producing states under strict guidelines. We feel that we've got the science to back that up. We've had no cases in which commercially packed citrus spread canker — none in 10 years."

Florida's iconic $9 billion citrus industry has been battered by two seasons of devastating hurricanes that ruined crops and spread a disease called canker so far the federal government decided in January it was a lost cause to contain it. The disease is harmless to humans but makes fruit blemish and drop prematurely from the tree, making it harder to sell. Previously, every tree within a 1,900-foot radius of one infected with canker was destroyed.

Since then, officials have been in working groups to devise a new policy to manage crop production and movement and minimize the spread of disease. So far no final protocol has been drawn up, which Compton said may have concerned other states so close to harvest.

Under the interim rule Florida growers cannot ship to 11 states and territories: Alabama, American Samoa, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Louisiana, Northern Mariana Island, Puerto Rico, Texas and the Virgin Islands.

Fresh fruit shipped to other areas must be from groves canker-free for two years, inspected within 30 days of the start of harvest, treated with a decontaminating solution and free of other plant material.

Cody Estes, president with the Indian River Citrus League, said growers weren't completely surprised, but hoped the ban doesn't last longer than a year.

"We did not expect to be able to ship to California, and with fuel costs as high as they are now it's not a big grapefruit market for us right now anyway," he said. "But we hate to lose any market; every one's important."