Chinese citrus ban leaves California scrambling for answers
The California fruit industry was left stunned yesterday, following an abrupt announcement from Chinese authorities that the country would no longer accept citrus imports from the U.S. state after April 18.
California Citrus Mutual president Joel Nelsen said China reported six interceptions earlier in the year for phytophthora syringae or brown rot, but no clear warning had been sent leading up to the announcement.
"There were six containers out of about 250 that had the problem - the Chinese have always had this on their list of spores of concern," he explained.
"When this manifested itself in February, they took a look at it. They said we had a problem but we didn’t know about it until last week, which is April.
"Then all of the sudden we get the notice yesterday saying, 'We’re going to stop your exports' and quite candidly right now, we’re scrambling to figure out what we can do to address the situation."
The California Citrus Quality Council (CCQC) has already begun to warn exporters to hold off on shipments. President Jim Cranney says like the rest of the industry, the council still has few answers.
"There is fruit on the water. We don’t have an estimate right now of how much but it seems to be a significant amount of fruit," Cranney said.
"On one hand we’ve received information that they would accept fruit if they had issued a phyto by April 17 but on the other hand, we don’t have assurances that all fruit that has been shipped and is on the water would be permitted entry. "
One problem with providing sufficient phytosanitary certification is that no one knew to have brown rot on their radar, Nelsen explained.
"They are demanding phytosanitary certificates regarding the fruit. Well, we weren’t looking for brown rot, and so the phytos aren’t complete to that effect. Now, there is a rule of thumb that fruit on the water would be inspected and allowed in, assuming it’s clean. We assume it’s clean because we haven’t had much rain since December but there’s no guarantee," Nelsen said.
China is one of California's main citrus trade partners, ranking as one of the top Asian nations alongside Korea and Japan. Cranney roughly estimated based on government figures that the state sends between two and three million cartons of oranges a year to China. Trade is valued at about US$29 million.
Nelsen explained that loss of the such a major trade partner will have a significant impact, especially given the element of surprise.
"The USDA had some high-level, bilateral meetings with China last week on other topics and it was never raised. In fact, our secretary of agriculture is over there - just coming back with the governor of California - and they blindsided her with the concern. Nobody has communicated anything about it to us until saying 'your loads are suspended,'" Nelsen said.
"We’ve got to address their concerns. There’s an obligation on our part to do that but there’s also a rule of thumb as to how trading partners should respond to each other too."
Right now, Cranney said California is simply waiting for answers and reviewing its options.
"We’re trying to determine what can be done to address their concerns and we’re at the very early stages of having a dialogue along those lines. But in the next couple of days we’ll have more information on what’s need and what we could potentially do to try to open the market again," Cranney said.
Nelsen elaborated that much of the effort to win over China will depend on information gathering already underway.
"We’re trying to accumulate as much basic scientific information around brown rot. We trying to determine based on the inventory that’s in packing houses now if we’ve got any suspicions of brown rot occurring. We’re trying to ascertain upon arrival what loads may have a problem. It’s doubtful that any of them will because we haven’t had any rain but we’re trying to quantify that," he said.
With at least another month left on the navel season and ongoing lemon production, Cranney said the industry is eager to work with China on finding a solution.
"We’re more than willing to whatever we can to address the concerns they have in China and we’re very anxious to provide any information they need," he said.