The U.S. Citrus Science Council (USCSC) filed a petition on Friday, March 30, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture asking for withdrawal of the Argentine Citrus rule published on June 15, 2000, according to Pierre Tada, co-chair of USCSC, a citrus industry government watchdog group focusing on the Argentine rule.

The rule allows the importation of citrus into the United States from Argentina despite the presence of diseases and pests not found in the United States. Overseeing the pest and disease prevention program is SENASA, Argentina's national food and safety agency.

The petition was filed in light of recent revelations regarding the actions of SENASA in dealing with hoof and mouth disease in Argentine cattle. Reports show that an apparent cover-up of the presence of foot and mouth disease took place in Argentina under SENASA's watch.

"USCSC expressed concern about the reliance on SENASA during the rulemaking process and received assurances from USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that it was a reliable agency. With these new revelations, there can no longer be any credible argument that SENASA provides sufficient protection for U.S. citrus growers," said Joel Nelsen, co-chair of USCSC.

Argentine lemon shipments to the U.S. began in August.

The USDA approved a "systems approach" to mitigate the threat that Argentine citrus diseases pose to U.S. citrus crops. The system relies entirely on the efficacy and reliability of SENASA. The USCSC believes that the USDA-designed program that relies on SENASA does not provide adequate steps to protect U.S. citrus crops and that the Argentine Citrus rule must be withdrawn immediately.

"USCSC opposes the Argentine Citrus rule for a number of reasons including lack of sufficient science, lack of transparency in the risk assessment and concern that APHIS delegated virtually all responsibility for monitoring the unprecedented program to the exporting country," explained Nelsen.

The systems approach is a complex set of measures aimed at reducing the likelihood of infection. These measures include registration and cleaning of groves, fungicide spraying in groves and surrounding buffer zones, pre-harvest visual inspection and sampling/analysis of fruit from groves, inspection and chemical treatment of fruit at the packinghouse.

The petition requests that the Argentine Citrus rule be withdrawn and revised so that a thorough investigation of SENASA's competence, integrity, trustworthiness and ability to oversee, verify and enforce compliance with the systems approach requirements of the rule.

In addition, the USCSC petition requests that a revised risk assessment be completed that include an examination of the ability of Argentina to oversee the systems approach. It also asks for a new assessment of what constitutes a negligible risk.

"We have always believed that the science used to develop this rule was flawed, and have challenged the rule on that basis. However, because of the recent developments, we believe that APHIS has no other course of action but to withdraw the rule," said Tada.

"Until U.S. citrus growers can be assured that the system approved by APHIS for importation of Argentine citrus can be enforced, it is irresponsible for APHIS to allow this fruit to continue to come into our country."

The USCSC represents more than 5,000 lemon, orange and grapefruit growers in Arizona and California.

Note to editors: For a copy of the petition, contact Diane Rumbaugh, rumbaugh@earthlink.net, 805/493-2877.