Florida’s commercial citrus growers can once again ship their fruit to other states and U.S. territories that grow the crops.
Federal officials Thursday lifted a ban on shipments to 10 other citrus-producing areas. The ban has been in place since 2006 and was meant to curb the spread of citrus canker.
Research now shows fresh fruit that has been disinfected isn’t at risk of spreading canker, a bacterial disease that blemishes fruit but is harmless to humans.
“It is not Mrs. Jones picking up fresh fruit and shipping it wherever. It’s treated,” said Ron Hamel, executive vice president of the Gulf Citrus Growers Association, representing the region’s growers.
The ban covered five states — California, Arizona, Louisiana, Hawaii and Texas — and five outlying island territories.
Growers of backyard citrus still can’t ship their fruit anywhere, unless it goes through a commercial packinghouse, said Nolan Lemon, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Florida growers have been hit hard by canker, losing trees, fruit and sales. Now they’ll be able to ship fruit showing signs of the disease and fruit from infected groves to anywhere in the U.S.
“It’s going to allow movement of Florida citrus into these other areas where they were not allowed to ship,” Hamel said. “Therefore, it ought to create more demand for production. That could help returns to growers.”
U.S. Congressman Adam Putnam praised the rule change allowing Florida citrus to be shipped to all 50 states again.
“This is a victory for science-based regulations, a victory for Florida fresh fruit growers and shippers, and a victory for consumers all over America who look forward to receiving fresh citrus from Florida in the winter,” he said in a statement.
“This comes not a moment too soon, as this marks the beginning of the Florida fruit shipment season,” Putnam said.
The change takes effect immediately. It could affect more than 50 citrus packinghouses in the state, which before the ban shipped nearly 1.5 million cartons valued at $10 million annually to the 10 other citrus-producing areas, according to estimates provided by Putnam’s office.
“Reaction from Florida’s fresh fruit growers and shippers has been extremely positive,” he said.
Restrictions remain on overseas exports, but discussions are ongoing to revise those rules.
Florida is the only state in the U.S. that has been quarantined because of canker.
The state’s growers have also been besieged by greening, a bacteria that sours fruit and kills trees. A quarantine still stands on the shipment of trees, stems and leaves to prevent the spread of greening and canker, Lemon said.
In January 2006, the state abandoned a controversial citrus canker eradication program after the disease continued to spread out of control. That program required the destruction of infected and exposed trees within a 1,900-foot radius.
Following the decision to end the eradication program, the USDA banned growers from shipping their fresh produce if they had canker in their groves.
In late 2007, the USDA eased up on its rules, allowing fruit from infected groves to be shipped to most states as long as it didn’t show any symptoms of the disease.
Florida Citrus Mutual has pushed for the rule changes, saying without them the fresh fruit industry could be wiped out in the state.
Only about 10 percent of Florida’s citrus goes to the fresh market. Most of it ends up at the juice plant. However, for growers of fresh fruit the USDA restrictions have been costly.
“Probably 50 percent of our fruit is varieties that could be shipped for fresh. To have other additional markets open up for us, by all means it will enhance our ability to ship fresh fruit,” said Mike Murphy, CEO of Cooperative Producers Inc., a citrus grower with 7,400 acres in Hendry, Collier and Lee counties.
He expects his fresh grapefruit shipments to be up this year because the supply is forecasted to be down in the state.
“This just gives us more avenues in which to ship the fruit to,” Murphy said.
In Florida, the citrus industry provides about 76,000 jobs and has a total impact of about $9 billion on the state’s economy.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.