House and Senate negotiators this week rejected an attempt by Sen. Barbara Boxer to stop imports of lemons from Argentina on the grounds they contain harmful pests.
The California Democrat had slipped the provision into a Senate appropriations bill in July, unleashing a storm of criticism from agricultural groups who feared that Argentina would retaliate by blocking American exports.
“We are working to make sure that the United States practices free trade and follows the rules,” said Nicholas Giordano, a trade lobbyist for the National Pork Producers Council.
Congressional oppponents killed the Boxer proposal when they reconciled the House and Senate proposals for the agricultural appropriations bill for fiscal 2001 this week.
“I am very disappointed that the Republican-dominated conference committee failed to stand up for the health and safety of the American people,” Mrs. Boxer said in a statement. “I call upon American produce buyers to do what Congress has failed to do: Keep this citrus off the shelves.”
The Department of Agriculture opened the door to Argentine lemon imports in June after certifying they were free of citrus canker, a virulent plant disease that could spread to U.S. lemon trees.
Mrs. Boxer, at the behest of a small group of California citrus producers called the U.S. Citrus Science Council, quietly won Senate approval of a rule that would have barred Argentine imports and mandated an independent study of the department’s decision.
When the provision came under fire, Mrs. Boxer offered an alternative that still would have ordered a study of the situation. But agriculture lobbyists, aided by the Clinton administration, fought that proposal as well, arguing that the Department of Agriculture should have the exclusive authority to make scientific decisions about the safety of imports.
“The real winner here is U.S. agriculture because sound science prevailed,” said Xavier Equihua, a lobbyist for the Argentine Citrus Producers Association.
But the citrus producers who prodded Mrs. Boxer into action are still pursuing a lawsuit to stop the government’s decision to allow import of the lemons. A few observers expect them to succeed in court.
Despite the dust-up over the Boxer provision, Sunkist, a cooperative of citrus producers, agreed to market Argentine lemons in the United States. The first shipments arrived in August.