Florida Packer Sues USDA to Lift Citrus Ban
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) _ A citrus packer has filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over a ban on Florida fruit shipments to other citrus-producing states.
The action is the first lawsuit in recent history involving a member of the Florida citrus industry and the USDA, state officials say.
Quentin Roe, a vice president of the family-owned W.G. Roe & Son Inc., said other citrus-producing states comprise an important market for tangerines and other specialty fruit packed by his company.
″We’re upset with the way the USDA is handling this thing,″ he said. ″They have prejudiced the Florida growers for no good reason. We feel like it has been proven there is no biological risk to shipping fruit to the other citrus states, and they have brought out nothing to refute that.″
A Tampa law firm representing the Roe company filed the suit Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Tampa.
The suit seeks a court injunction that would immediately lift the 3-year- old USDA ban which has been in place since September 1984 when a plant disease thought to be citrus canker was discovered in a Polk County tree nursery.
Officials estimate that the market for Florida citrus in other citrus states including California and Texas brings $25 million a year to the Florida industry.
The suit seeks injunctive relief totaling more than $786,000 for Roe, and class action status to represent all fruit shippers harmed by the ban.
Florida officials had expected the USDA to release a plan early this week which would establish conditions for lifting the ban. But as Wednesday passed and no word had come from the USDA, Roe attorneys decided to take action.
USDA officials said they would not comment until seeing the lawsuit.
″I am not extremely surprised that they have done it,″ said Nancy Robinson, a spokesman for USDA in Washington, D.C. ″They have been threatening to do it for a while. But it is too early to make a comment at this time since we don’t know what it says.″
Robinson added that the agency is continuing ″to move expeditiously toward adopting a protocol (procedures) and they (Roe’s attorneys) evidently do not believe we are moving expeditiously.″
State citrus officials said they are waiting to see what the USDA’s plan says before considering any further legal action. The latest report from USDA sources is that a new plan will be released Monday, according to Don Farmer, deputy executive director of the Department of Citrus.
Last September, the USDA unveiled a plan that would have allowed fruit shipment if the procedures called protocols were followed. The protocols included decontamination procedures by growers and chlorine, heat and wax treatment by shippers.
But in December the USDA withdrew its proposal, citing new findings of so- called nursery strain canker and opposition to the plan from California and Texas. Florida officials cried foul and said the USDA caved in to political influence from the other citrus states.