Miami's asparagus importers stalk solution to new regulatory threats
By Robert Grattan
New changes to regulations governing the fumigation of Peruvian asparagus have importers worried about increased costs and the future feasibility in the US of the fresh product, which represents a substantial market for both Miami and rest of the country.
"Eighty percent of the asparagus that comes into the US comes through [Miami International Airport]," said Tony Quintero, associate aviation director for governmental affairs at the airport. "It's a significant impact. It's our second most important perishable next to cut flowers."
Miami International handled 154 million pounds of asparagus from Peru last year alone, he added.
"Peru is the largest source of fresh asparagus in the US marketplace, representing over 51% of the fresh asparagus market," said Priscilla Lleras, spokeswoman for the Peruvian Asparagus Importers Association, in an e-mail.
But this business is threatened by the increased costs that new regulations could pose, importers say.
In a document submitted to regulators last week, this importers association warned that new regulations "could potentially damage the industry to an end result of making Peruvian asparagus financially impossible for US importers to handle."
Last December, the US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, increased the amount of methyl bromide fumigant that is required to treat Peruvian asparagus from 4 to 4.5 pounds for two hours — that's a 12.5% increase.
Also, USDA officials must now inspect the asparagus to ensure "the shipment is not released while the methyl bromide concentration is too high," said Alyn Kiel, spokeswoman for Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an agency under the USDA.
This agency requested the changes after determining that the original dosage was not adequate to kill the eggs of Copitarsia, a moth classified as an invasive species.
In its written submission to regulators, the importers association claims the new guideline "has created substantial quality and financial issues in the fresh asparagus industry," especially in USDA employee overtime costs, new charges and consumer-quality claims.
More aeration and inspection time means the asparagus takes longer to reach retailers, importers say, affecting its quality.
"It has been estimated that 30% of shelf life has been taken away from the fresh asparagus product," according to documents.
On top of the decrease in shelf life, the importers association estimates the total financial cost during the new rule's four-month implementation to be close to $1.4 million.
This figure includes $1.1 million in customer claims about asparagus quality and $215,925 in overtime wages for USDA inspectors and warehouse personnel.
To address these issues, the importers association and Miami airport representatives met with USDA officials to discuss the regulation in May.
"The administrator understood the economic impact [the new regulation] had on the industry," Mr. Quintero said.
He emphasized his willingness to help both sides reach an agreement, as this conflict has a big impact on asparagus shipments coming in through Miami International.
"At MIA, we're here to partner with both the industry and the USDA," he said, adding: "we're confident this will be resolved."
The USDA is reviewing the importers association's letter, Ms. Kiel said, and won't comment until the review is complete.
But it appears the two groups are willing to work together to reach a favorable solution.
"Our business relationship with USDA has always been strong and we continue to build on that," Ms. Lleras said. "We are jointly working with USDA on options."
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