With a goal to get a final ruling by early March, California citrus interests and the U.S. government are tangling again over lemon imports from Argentina.
The federal district court in Fresno, Calif., ruled Oct. 25 that grower plaintiffs and the U.S. Citrus Science Council have standing to pursue their lawsuit against a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule issued this year that opened the door for U.S. imports of Argentine lemons.
In May, the Santa Paula, Calif.-based U.S. Citrus Science Council and a group of growers filed suit against the USDA for allowing lemons from Argentina into the U.S.
At the time, the council expressed concern the fruit could bring pests and diseases.
The lawsuit also argues that proper procedures were not followed to develop the rule, which was issued Dec. 23. In the early days of the Trump administration, the rule faced a 60-day stay starting Jan. 22, and another 60-day stay went in place March 17. The rule went into effect May 26.
The council said also said USDA’s estimate of the rule’s economic impact on the U.S. lemon industry is another point of contention.
Growers who filed suit are Santa Paula Creek Ranch, CPR Farms, Green Leaf Farms Inc., Bravante Produce and Richard Bagdasarian Inc.
The U.S. Department of Justice took over the lawsuit on behalf of the USDA and worked out a schedule of filing documents related to the lawsuit, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual.
In addition, the Department of Justice asked the court to rule that the Citrus Science Council and five grower plaintiffs didn’t have legal standing in the case; it also argued the case should not have been filed in federal district court in Fresno, Nelsen said.
On Oct 25, Nelsen said the court ruled in favor of the California plaintiffs in four of the five counts that were argued by the Department of Justice, allowing the plaintiffs’ case to continue.
“We are pretty pleased about that, and we were confident going in,” Nelsen said Oct. 30. “It doesn’t by any means indicate the lawsuit is over and we are going to win — we are a long way from that.”
One of the agreements the plaintiffs earlier reached with the Department of Justice is to get the lawsuit resolved by about the first of March, Nelsen said, so citrus industries in California and Argentina know what to expect for next season.
Nelsen said plaintiffs filed their first formal brief a couple of weeks ago and the Department of Justice is required to file a response in November. The plaintiffs will again respond to the DOJ in December, after which time the court will make a ruling.
“As it stands now, I don’t believe there will be any oral arguments and the court will take everything under advisement,” Nelsen said.
Nelsen said he doesn’t believe there have been any imports of Argentine lemons to the U.S. so far because the rule was issued too far into Argentina’s lemon season. Exporters were not able to comply with all of the requirements on a timely basis.
Nelsen said the lawsuit, among other things, focuses on the scope of the disease and pest problems in Argentina. The lack of transparency in rulemaking — particularly related to a June 2015 trip by USDA officials to Argentina — is a pivotal issue, he said. California citrus interests didn’t get a full report of the trip until after filing the lawsuit and there are several issues in the trip report, Nelsen said, that could have changed the final USDA rule.
“There are a number of questions that arose in our minds after looking at the (trip report) and we would have raised them during the notice and comment period,” he said, suggesting that the final rule would have been altered if the USDA had heard the industry’s concerns.
This is not the first clash between California citrus industry and the USDA concerning Argentine lemons.
The USDA opened the door for Argentine lemons in 2000, but that decision was successfully challenged in court the next year, and the program was suspended in 2001.