USDA could clear path for isle tropical fruits
Tropical fruits from Hawaii would be shipped to the mainland under the same rules already in effect for fruits from Thailand and other foreign countries under a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The federal government already allows mangosteen, dragon fruit, Korean melon, breadfruit and jack fruit grown in other countries and treated with irradiation to be shipped to the United States, said Lyle Wong, plant quarantine administrator for the state Department of Agriculture.
But the same fruits grown in Hawaii are prohibited from going to the mainland, even though the state has been asking the USDA for rule changes since 1997.
"It's about time," said Bob Hamilton, a tropical fruit farmer and distributor on the Big Island. "We have mangosteen growing here. It's unfortunate that now Thailand can sell it on the mainland and we can't."
Hamilton said mangosteen from Central America is selling for more than $16 a pound in retail outlets in New York City. Farmers in Hawaii get about $6 a pound wholesale for mangosteen sold in local markets, he said.
Specialty tropical fruit sales are one of the bright spots in Hawaii's agriculture industry. An estimated 1.45 million pounds of fruit sold for about $2.6 million last year.
The proposed rule change for Hawaii growers was published in the federal registry on Nov. 15, according to U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie's office. Abercrombie helped arrange a video conference last year between USDA officials and Hawaii fruit growers upset over a rule change that allowed Thailand to export fruits to the United States, while Hawaii growers couldn't send to the mainland.
"It's very frustrating when our government gives other countries (the ability to sell fruit on the mainland) and won't give it to us," Hamilton said.
The rule change for Thailand was approved earlier this year. Hamilton said so far there hasn't been much of an effect on Hawaii growers, because air freight costs from Thailand are about five times that of shipping from Hawaii.
The USDA is taking comments on the proposed rule change for Hawaii until Jan. 14, Wong said. The rule could be approved and published sometime in February, Wong said. Once that happens, Hawaii growers will be able to export fruit to the mainland with irradiation treatment.
Wong thinks there's a market for not only mangosteen, but Korean melon, breadfruit and jack fruit.
But he said foreign growers still have an advantage over Hawaii because the approval process to bring in new fruits from other countries has been expedited, meaning new foreign fruits and vegetables can be approved within a year or two.
Hawaii's applications must still go through a longer quarantine review process. Wong said Hawaii is still waiting for the federal government to act on applications to approve shipping of Hawaii citrus and guava filed nearly a decade ago.
"It (the rule change) still doesn't put us on par with the rest of the world," Wong said.
Tropical fruit production and sales in Hawaii
Source: National Agricultural Statistics Service USDA Hawaii Field Office
||Production in pounds