Fruit farmers perplexed by agency's rules
Hawaii farmers are frustrated that an 8-year campaign to let them export fruit to the mainland has produced no results
Facing a proposal to allow Thai farmers to export exotic fruit to the United States, Hawaii farmers yesterday met by video conference with regulators in Washington to ask why their Thai counterparts were just one step from getting access to a mainland market that remains off limits to Hawaii farmers despite years of efforts to enter it.
The meeting, organized by U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, came approximately one month after the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service proposed a rule that would let Thailand export pineapple, longan, mango, mangosteen and rambutan to the United States.
While the meeting gave farmers a chance to vent their concerns, it resolved nothing and at times left growers expressing bafflement over some of the agency's practices and policies.
Regulators say that they're required by the International Plant Protection Convention, an international treaty, to entertain Thailand's request to export fruit to the United States. Under the treaty, the U.S. plant inspection service says it can't base its decision on economic concerns. Instead, its actions must be based solely on issues pertaining to health and safety risks, such as whether Thailand's plan would adequately keep pests out of the United States.
But Hawaii farmers say that the rule would hurt pineapple growers and be patently unfair to local producers of exotic fruits, such as mangosteen, who are not allowed to export their products to the mainland because of plant inspection service rules. The value of sales of Hawaii tropical specialty fruits hit a record $2.7 million last year, according to the USDA.
Finally, there is the issue of protecting Hawaii and the mainland from invasive species, which the Hawaii contingent says the proposed rule fails to address.
The public has until Sept. 25 to submit comments on the proposed rule.
Although yesterday's meeting was meant to answer the questions of local farmers, at times it left the growers scratching their heads.
For example, when explaining the scope of plant inspection service's criteria for allowing the exports, Matthew Rhoads, a regulatory coordinator with the agency, said regulators could not consider the rule's economic consequences when making its decision.
That led Maui Land & Pineapple Co. Ltd.'s president and chief executive, Brian Nishida, to ask why the agency had included information about the rule's potential economic impact in its published notice of the rule change.
Rhoads explained that the agency was required by law to make the economic analysis, but prohibited by the international treaty from taking action based on the analysis.
This left some farmers wondering why they were talking to the plant inspection service staff to begin with.
"I think the bigger issue is, 'Who the heck should we be talking to?'" said David Longacre, a Big Island fruit grower.
At another point, Rhoads riled up a few of the farmers by saying that they should submit comments made at the meeting in writing because, despite the presence of three news reporters and a television cameraman, Rhoads explained, "Technically, we're not exactly on the record here."
Two of the chief complaints involved more substantive matters. One centered on the unwillingness of the U.S. plant inspection service to let Hawaii farmers sell some of the same fruits on the mainland despite what the farmers said had been an eight-year campaign cut through the red tape.
"It's frustrating for Hawaii farmers to have to stand behind Thailand," said Eric Weinert, owner and manager of CW Hawaii Pride LLC, a Big Island irradiation facility.
Richard Johnson, president of Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers on the Big Island, said the plant inspection service should treat the Thai farmers the same way that it has the Hawaii growers, and not fast-track approvals.
"This whole process should take approximately eight years" for Thailand to be approved, he said.
But Shirley Wager Page, an analyst with the plant inspection service, said that the agency has been able to approve Thailand's plan quickly because its proposed method of irradiating produce to kill insects was more simple than the one put forth by Hawaii.
Whereas Thailand's method would employ just one type of irradiation for all of its products, Hawaii farmers had proposed to use a variety of doses of irradiation depending on the type of fruit being treated. This, she said, has complicated the process for approving Hawaii imports.
Finally, Nishida said that Thailand's U.S.-approved plan fails to protect against anything more than a handful of insects.
"That's extremely disconcerting and obviously problematic because they're not looking at the full range of invasive species," Nishida said.