USDA defends action

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Television’s flower and garden expert P. Allen Smith talks with

GILROY
– The United States Department of Agriculture and
representatives from the potato industry are defending a rigorous
quarantine policy local flower grower Goldsmith Plants believes is
overkill.
GILROY – The United States Department of Agriculture and representatives from the potato industry are defending a rigorous quarantine policy local flower grower Goldsmith Plants believes is overkill.

USDA officials say their actions to keep a foreign strand of Ralstonia bacteria out of billion-dollar potato and tobacco crops – by destroying entire shipments of plants when even just one is infected – have nothing to do with enforcement of the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002, as some in the flower growing industry publicly complained about last week.

“Ralstonia is on the (Bioterrorism Act’s) Select Agents and Toxins list, but if no such list existed or Ralstonia was not on this list, we would take the same actions that we are taking today,” USDA spokesperson Meghan Thomas said.

The USDA also says its practice of destroying all plants shipped with Ralstonia infected geraniums is based on science and is part of its mission to keep foreign-born bacteria out of the United States.

“We don’t want to come back six, eight or 10 months from now and say, ‘We didn’t do everything we knew we needed to do to keep this pest out of the environment, and now it’s in your crops,’ ” Thomas said.

Last week, Goldsmith Plants – Gilroy’s largest flower producer and a sister company to Goldsmith Seeds, Inc. – publicly complained about the policies which could make them liable for up to $7 million in damages to greenhouse stock around the country.

The Ralstonia problem started in January when seven geranium cuttings from Goldsmith Plants’ greenhouse in Kenya were unknowingly infected with the deadly bacteria and shipped to the United States. Since March, the USDA has been ordering the destruction of all plants shipped with an infected geranium regardless of the health of those other plants.

For instance, if one geranium in a shipment of 100 plants is infected with Ralstonia, all 100 plants have to be destroyed.

If Ralstonia enters the environment, it could destroy crops such as potato, tobacco, pepper, eggplant and tomato. But the 41-year-old Gilroy company contends there is no science to back up concerns that one infected geranium in a greenhouse could lead to infection of an entire potato crop somewhere else.

“All the fingers are pointing to us, but before we jump on a bill that could be several million dollars, someone has to prove to us that all these actions (by the USDA) were reasonable and valid,” CEO Joel Goldsmith said. “If we knew there would be this zero-tolerance policy, we may never have even shipped them.”

Goldsmith Plants does not contest it inadvertently shipped Ralstonia-infected geraniums, but wants to rectify the situation according to industry standard. Normal practices are to destroy only the infected plant and plants within one meterof the contaminated plant, industry officials said. When plants beyond one meter share water or soil, they are destroyed, too.

The company has estimated that under normal circumstances damages would have totaled just more than $50,000.

National Potato Council CEO John Keeling, whose $3 billion industry could take a huge hit if Ralstonia somehow showed up in potato crops, believes extra caution should be exercised.

“There’s always going to be in a situation like this the feeling that too much regulation is being done when your crop is on the giving end (of a disease) and not enough is being done when your crop is on the receiving end,” Keeling said.

Thus far, 60 of the 120 greenhouses that received potentially infected Goldsmith plants have filed claims against the company totaling about $2 million. If the remaining greenhouses submit claims – and Goldsmith says that is a near certainty – Goldsmith Plants could be looking at $7 million of liability.

The flower growing industry hopes the USDA will compensate greenhouses for inventory damage instead of making Goldsmith Plants ante up.

According to Thomas, the USDA spokesperson, compensation is not being ruled out.

“It’s a possibility, but an extraordinary state of emergency has to be called by the Secretary of Agriculture (Ann M. Veneman) before that happens,” Thomas said.

Goldsmith Plants also believes the Bioterrorism Act should be reviewed regardless of whether it played a role in USDA policy.

“The law lists Ralstonia as a potential weapon of agricultural terrorism. One of the main drawbacks to being on the bioterrorism list is that no one can work on (the bacteria). You need some special license from the USDA,” Goldsmith said. “The biggest issue that we’re dealing with is that there’s not much information known about (this strand of Ralstonia), so getting off the list is still key in my opinion.”

Goldsmith officials and other flower industry advocates lobbied Congressman Mike Honda at the company’s Hecker Pass farm last week. They want Honda to build a coalition of other lawmakers that will relax the USDA quarantine policies as well as compensate greenhouses for any noninfected material that has been destroyed.

Ruben Pulido, Honda’s spokesperson, said the Congressman’s staff is researching information from the USDA and the flower growing industry. When Congress reconvenes next week, Honda will begin talking to other lawmakers, Pulido said.

“It’s too early to tell what approach we’ll be taking, but the bottom line is we’ll take an active role in finding a solution that doesn’t hurt any of the industries involved,” Pulido said. “We’re talking about the economy and impacts to local jobs and the Congressman takes that seriously.”

Goldsmith Plants plans to continue its role as a major player in the geranium market. Geranium production at Goldsmith Plants’ Kenya and Guatemala greenhouses have been stopped for this year. The company is in the process of building up its stock for shipments next season, which begins in September.

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