Satsuma mandarin oranges like these were approved for import to the United States starting in April, but growers in Florida oppose the decision. File Photo courtesy of University of Florida
ORLANDO, Fla., June 25 (UPI) -- A bill to ban the importation of all citrus from China has gained bipartisan support in Florida, where growers have invested billions of dollars to battle citrus greening disease that came from Asia.
The bill comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture authorized limited varieties for import as of April 15. Before that, the United States had not allowed any citrus imports from China.
"Given that our growers have so many other challenges right now -- competition from Brazil, citrus greening and other diseases -- it's obvious to me that adding Chinese imports is going to be very problematic," said the bill's sponsor, U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Republican from Lakewood.
Stuebe introduced the bill after formal requests from Florida's congressional delegation to rescind the decision failed to move the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Steube refers to it as the U.S. Citrus Protection Act.
He said he didn't know of a companion bill in the Senate yet, and that he realizes his bill might face scheduling problems because he filed it late in the session.
Stuebe said he listened to growers in his area and to members of the Florida Farm Bureau before he crafted the short bill. It was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.
"I believe people would much rather consume fruit and juice in the U.S. and support American farmers over supporting the Chinese communist party," Stuebe said in a phone interview Monday.
Florida citrus growers said the Trump Administration's decision to authorize the imports was a sharp blow amid economic hardship caused by the pandemic.
"At first I wasn't sure I heard correctly. [The decision] seemed an oddity, especially in a time when we are all wondering why the coronavirus pandemic originated in China and wasn't contained better," said Ron Mahan, chief financial officer with Tamiami Citrus of Fort Myers.
The USDA announced in February that five specific types of citrus from China would be allowed under the new U.S.-China trade agreement -- pummelo, Nanfeng honey mandarin, ponkan, sweet orange and Satsuma mandarin fruit. Some of those are grown in limited amounts in the United States as specialty crops.
The USDA said only small amounts of citrus will ship from China because the Asian nation has many other markets around the world, according to the formal record of the decision.
As part of new trade negotiations, China had requested that all citrus varieties be allowed, with assurances that its growers would disinfect the fruit and keep it free of pests. According to the USDA's decision on authorizing the five varieties, only those are deemed safe for import.
The new imports had been considered by the USDA for years, but attracted more attention as President Donald Trump ramped-up tariffs amid a trade war.
Agriculture department officials said the five varieties could be safely imported, under a system of protections and inspection to ward against pests or disease. The USDA provided only one reason for its decision: Trade agreements require that imports are allowed if a framework to guarantee safety can be achieved.
The USDA said it will ensure that China's regulators set up the proper system, but monitoring will be handled by Chinese regulators.
Chinese growers and processors are required to register where the fruit was grown and packed, and to certify to the Chinese regulators that the fruit is free of quarantine pests. Once imports arrive in the United States, the USDA will monitor them for possible violations.
Stuebe said he intends to add South Africa to the bill's import ban, having learned that South Africa has even more unique citrus pests that aren't found in the United States.
Two other Florida legislators said they support the bill -- U.S. Reps. Bill Posey, a Republican from Rockledge, and Darren Soto, a Democrat from Kissimmee.
"American citrus was devastated by citrus greening and only now has begun to recover," Soto said Tuesday. "I support the Citrus Protection Act to prevent these types of invasive diseases from again attacking local groves in Central Florida and beyond."
Citrus greening wiped out many Florida groves, which dropped to 387,100 acres in 2019 from 679,000 in 2004.
State officials also oppose the Chinese imports, including Nikki Fried, the state commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.
"Getting imports from China that we know carry a lot of the pests and different diseases is just really irresponsible," Fried told UPI. "There may be methods to detect pests or disease, and disinfect fruit, but those are not foolproof. Just one pest will cripple the industry."
Florida's two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, also asked the USDA in writing to rescind the decision. The USDA refused, citing the trade agreements.
"The United States has agreed that any prohibitions it places on the importation of fruits and vegetables will be based on scientific evidence, and will not be maintained without sufficient scientific evidence," according to the USDA decision.
Mahan, the grower, said China has a poor record of containing problems like the coronavirus or citrus greening, and shouldn't be trusted.
"I've not been to China, but I have talked to researchers who have been there, and I fear China is not good at disease control," Mahan said.