WASHINGTON — Avocado fans will enjoy lower prices but California growers might lose some business to Peruvian imports under a new proposal that shows the durability of trade barriers.
On Wednesday, more than eight years after Peru's request, the Agriculture Department formally proposed admitting Hass avocados from Peru. The Peruvian exporters must meet new monitoring and inspection standards similar to those imposed on other foreign countries.
"This action would allow for the importation of Hass avocados ... while continuing to provide protection against the introduction of quarantine pests," the Agriculture Department declared Wednesday.
Foreign pests are anathema to California's estimated 6,000 commercial avocado growers, who already are struggling financially this year. Centered around San Diego, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties -- but also grown commercially in Tulare County -- California's avocados were valued at a quarter-of-a-billion dollars last year.
Peruvian growers estimate they might ship 19,000 metric tons of Hass avocados to the United States annually, a 10 percent increase over current U.S. imports. Agriculture Department economists predict that some of the imports from Peru would displace avocados from other countries.
Economists further predicted that consumers may benefit and U.S. producers may lose a bit due to "a decline in market prices ranging between 1 percent and 6 percent."
The Californians have resisted foreign imports from Mexico and Peru for many years, often with the assistance of the state's politicians. Californians cite fear of pests, while skeptics consider competition to be an influence as well.
"Certainly, we do have concerns," said Guy Witney, director of industry affairs for the California Avocado Commission, "but our biggest concern is not one of competition. Our concern is that our growers have been hurt really, really badly by pest infestations."
Witney said the California growers would welcome the Peruvian avocados if the pest danger were eliminated, but he added that the Agriculture Department's proposal might not adequately protect U.S. growers against the full array of potential pests. He said "the market is not yet saturated," suggesting consumer demand might readily absorb additional imports.
The Agriculture Department's rules for Peruvian avocados are designed to protect against six different pests, including the South American fruit fly, the guava fruit fly and the avocado seed moth. The protective measures include registration and monitoring of commercial groves, surveys and stricter packinghouse standards.
Similar rules were imposed on Mexican imports in 1997, ending a U.S. ban on Mexico avocados that had held for 83 years. California growers subsequently challenged the decision with a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno, and California's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, weighed in on the growers' behalf.
In December 2004, nonetheless, the Bush administration further lifted the Mexican ban, and in 2007 the Mexican avocados started coming into all 50 states.
The ban on Peruvian imports has been similarly durable. In 2001, following a December 2000 request from Peru's top plant health official, the U.S. Department of Agriculture commissioned a formal risk study. The resulting study was published for public comment in May 2006.
"Avocado production in Peru plays an important social and economic role," noted Enrique Camet, head of the country's avocado growers' organization. "It not only generates jobs for low income people that otherwise would not have employment; it also helps to provide employment to low income people that otherwise would seek employment in illegal coca production."
Lawmakers from New Jersey and Pennsylvania likewise praised the move, saying their region's importers would benefit from the added business.