USDA listens to importers, pulls California desert grape proposal

USDA listens to importers, pulls California desert grape proposal

Going against a recommendation from California desert grape growers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has withdrawn a proposal to remove varietal exemptions from the desert grape marketing order. The proposal would have required inspections of all imported grapes from April 10 to July 10.

The USDA said the current varietal exemptions for table grapes grown in Southeastern California and imported grapes will continue to be in effect.

The USDA said the proposal, which was recommended by the California Desert Grape Administrative Committee, would have required that all domestic grapes from the regulated production area and grapes imported from April 10 to July 10 meet the same minimum quality, grade, size, maturity and inspection requirements.

“After reviewing and considering the comments received, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has determined that the proposed rule to remove varietal exemptions from the order and the table grape import regulation should not be finalized,” the USDA said in a news release.

The USDA said a notice announcing the withdrawal of the proposed rule was published in the Oct. 25 Federal Register. The proposed rule had been published in the Federal Register in June 2017, followed by a 60-day comment period.

The USDA said that during the comment period, 15 comments were received, one in support of the rule, thirteen against, and one did not pertain to the issue raised in the proposal. 

“The supportive comment was from a California table grape industry association and was in favor of the proposed changes,” the notice said. “Each of the 13 opposing commenters represented an entity involved in the importation or marketing of imported table grapes: Six were from distributors of imported grapes based in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California; two represented shipping ports; three represented trade associations; one was from an exporters’ association; and one was from a foreign embassy.”

The USDA said the opposing comments noted that the changes would result in job losses as well as a substantive increase in burden and costs to shippers and exporters in handling and storage costs, without adding quality benefits. According to the notice, those commenting said the proposal could lead to reduced efficiency and vitality of export operations.

Other comments also stated inspection delays and associated costs are not warranted because imported grapes do not compete on a seeded vs. seedless basis.

Another commenter noted that the changes would represent a major barrier to trade by eliminating exemptions, thereby restricting the flow of table grapes to market, causing economic harm to the shipper and possibly the consumer of table grapes.

The USDA said some comments stated that the proposed rule did not contain quantifiable data that demonstrated support for the removal of all grape varietal exemptions from the order and no evidence supported eliminating previously exempted varieties shipped and sold prior to the first availability of the same comparable domestic varieties. In addition, they stated that imported grapes have not been shown to effect prices on any of the domestic exempted varieties.

The USDA said comments also contended that the proposed changes are not supported by law or data and that it is not appropriate to deviate from the long-standing agency determination to exempt varieties not domestically produced.

Representing the lone comment supporting removing varietal exemptions, Mike Bozick, with the Desert Grape Growers League of California said there are good reasons to remove the varietal exemptions.

“Factors affecting consumer decision making and additional table grape varieties being grown in the production area combine to make these exemptions outdated," Bozick wrote. "There is no evidence to suggest consumers, producers or importers will experience any negative impacts resulting from this change in AMS policy. Indeed, it is expected that consumers will enjoy a higher quality and more consistent product as a result of the elimination of varietal exemptions."

Some of the comments to the proposed rule said removing varietal exemptions an effort to add trade barrier for imports.

In a representative comment opposing removal of varietal exemptions, Capespan North America commented:

“In our view, there is no evidence to support the elimination of these previously exempted table grape varieties. Indeed, we perceive the proposal to remove these exemptions as an effort by the California Desert Grape Administrative Committee to use the regulatory power of the AMS and USDA to create additional barriers to entry of a product that offers no substantial threat to the California desert table grape producers."