Why food gifts from the PH could threaten U.S. citrus crops

By Rommel Conclara, ABS-CBN North America Bureau

August 6, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO – The California Department of Food and Agriculture in partnership with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency held a press conference at the San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday to release information on a pest that could greatly impact the US economy – a deadly plant disease which kills citrus trees.

The bacterial disease is called Huanglongbing or HLB and it is found in parts of Africa, Brazil, and throughout Asia, especially in the Philippines.

Victoria Hornbaker of the California Department of Food and Agriculture says, “HLB is a disease that is a death sentence to citrus. Once a tree contracts this bacterial disease it does not recover.”

The disease is spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid and by people transporting plant material into the U.S. from other countries.

Chief Supervisory Officer of the U.S. Customs and Border Agency says, “It happens every day – not only at this port but also at our sea port unit where we have the sea cargo coming in, and we have our air cargo units at San Francisco and Oakland airports. So we do intercept quite a few there.”

Peter De Souza and his partner, a beagle named Skipper, work at SFO and inspect hundreds of travelers every day.

He says Skipper always finds prohibited items in some of their bags and Balikbayan boxes.

“He has found chicharon,” said De Souza. “He has found pickled mango that’s not pickled enough. He has found fruit that people bring. They say ‘oh my God I forgot that in my bag’. I do have to say most of the time the Filipino community, they are very forthcoming by declaring, ‘yes I do have this, or yes I do have that’. I am very proud of the Filipino community around here.”

De Souza requests Pinoy travelers to always declare that they have food items in order to avoid penalty and fines that may cost them up to $10,000 dollars.

“It’s easier for us to say ‘no it is not allowed, yes this is allowed’ versus ‘you’re going to get a penalty,’” said De Souza.

The Citrus Pest & Disease Prevention Program offers these tips:

-Don’t bring citrus. Don’t bring fruit or plants from the Philippines or other countries into the United States. The disease and the insect can be found in them.

-Graft with care. If you are a hobbyist, only use budwood that comes from a reputable, local source that can document the origin of plant material.

-Report suspicious symptoms. If you notice uneven yellow color on your tree leaves or if the tree declines in health and stops producing fruit, alert agriculture officials, or call 800-491-1899.

You may contact Rommel Conclara at rommel_conclara@abs-cbn.com and follow him on Twitter @rommelconclara for more information.

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