The news came amid an avocado shortage in the country that was causing prices to spike, and the main hurdle to entry was logistical. Authorities needed to ensure that potentially dangerous pests would not follow Colombian avocados northward and introduce blight in the United States. The USDA’s original analysis, for example, noted the need for Colombia to upgrade certain procedural and monitoring safeguards within its growing and supply chain.
Bu this week, the USDA, through its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) agency, announced that it overstated that fear due to what seems to be a clerical error. A more recent risk assessment has revealed that the perceived threat presented by a pest called the pink hibiscus mealybug was unfounded.
“We have subsequently determined that growing conditions for Hass avocados in Colombia, as well as the standard packinghouse practices used to prepare the fruit for commercial export, effectively preclude the pink hibiscus mealybug from following the pathway from Colombia to the continental United States,” said APHIS in a statement.
The confusion came from the fact that the original pest risk assessment released “was not the latest iteration that had been prepared,” said APHIS.
In short, Colombia’s safeguards to prevent this pest are already sufficiently stringent and this was known by officials in October. But the paperwork included in the document reflected outdated info.
So with this realization, the agency has now reopened the comment period that will precede its plan to propose the legal change that will allow Colombian Hass avocados into the United States. While some barriers may still remain, the fact that there is no significant pink hibiscus mealybug risk could streamline the implementation requirements on Colombia’s end before farmers there can begin exporting their avocados to the world’s largest market.
The inclusion of misinformation in the original report, however, has likely delayed the process to some degree. The reopened comment period will now last until February 26, said APHIS. The original comment period, which was opened on October 27, was set to close on December 28.
The first steps made towards allowing the import of Colombian avocados came during a time of shortage. This was largely due to a growers’ strike in Mexico, which produces the bulk of avocados eaten north of the border. Low harvest yields in California also exacerbated the problem and led to a price surge throughout the United States. “We’re seeing fruit out there at double the price it normally would be,” Cythnia Guzman of California-based distributor Nature’s Produce, told CNBC in October.
Though the crisis has eased in the ensuing months, the hunger for avocados has continued to grow in recent years. And at the current rate of demand increase, Mexico and California likely cannot keep up. Nearly 2.2 billion pounds of Hass avocados were shipped in the United States in 2015 — almost double the 1.1 billion in 2011, per the Hass Avocado Board.
Colombia, with its long growing season and large avocado supply, can help fill the demand. “A growing U.S. population and growing Hispanic share of the population, greater awareness of the avocado’s health benefits, year-round availability of fresh, affordable Hass avocados, and greater disposable income have contributed to the increased demand,” said the APHIS in its proposal.