- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 24, 2000

Fresh lemons from Argentina are beginning to hit many U.S. grocery stores. Unsurprisingly, special interests are determined to sour this new benefit for U.S. consumers and are now working toward that end through the courts and in Congress.

Citrus growers in California have filed suit against the Department of Agriculture (USDA) for deciding in June to allow Argentine lemons into the United States. These growers, calling themselves the U.S. Citrus Science Council, said that government scientists ignored evidence that the Argentine lemons could carry pests devastating to U.S. lemon trees. Likewise California Sen. Barbara Boxer has introduced legislation which would force Argentine producers to go through yet another scientific review of the risks of importing the lemons.

But this opposition appears to be nothing more than a case of sour grapes, initiated to prevent the onset of new competition. Already the USDA has spent about six years reviewing the safety of Argentine lemons and found that, thanks to a combination of safety measures, the imports pose a "negligible" risk of pest infection. Texas Department of Agriculture officials seconded the finding, writing, "We agree … that the risk of pest introductions can be reduced to an acceptable level through strict adherence to the risk mitigation measures in the proposed export program." Moreover, Argentina exports its lemons to Britain, France, Spain and other European countries as well as destinations in the Middle East and Asia. No problems have arisen there as a result of the imports. The experience of other countries substantiate the safety of the Argentine lemons.

Furthermore, the U.S. growers have undermined their credibility in an important way. As it turns out, the growers represented by the U.S. Citrus Science Council will share the same brand name as those producing the Argentine lemons. The reason is that most, if not all, of the U.S. growers trying to stop the lemon imports are also represented by Sunkist Growers, which groups many independent growers in a marketing cooperative. The produce of all these growers all share the Sunkist brand. Interestingly enough, Sunkist has also decided to market the Argentine lemons. The Argentine produce, therefore, will also bear the famous brand. If the growers were legitimately concerned about the Argentine lemons, they would have vigorously opposed sharing the same brand name with the "tainted" lemons.

The USDA has made the right decision in this case. U.S. consumers will now be able to buy fresh lemons at times of the year when U.S. produce is more difficult and expensive to come by. Congress should take a firm stand against Sen. Boxer's protectionist legislation, and allow citrus lovers this bittersweet victory.

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