Americans say PEI potatoes to be allowed into mainland US ‘soon’

PEI table potatoes will soon be allowed into the continental US with some conditions, according to a news release Thursday from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency will lift its ban on exporting PEI table or eating potatoes — but not seed or processing potatoes.

“USDA has determined PEI potatoes for consumption only may resume under specified conditions that will pose little risk of introducing potato wart disease into the United States,” said the release from APHIS.

Shipments of fresh potatoes to the US mainland have been banned for months, following the discovery of potato wart in two PEI fields in October.

Alex Docherty of Skye View Farms and his father watch as a truckload of potatoes is dumped in a field to be destroyed in early February. (Submitted by Alex Docherty )

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency halted shipments of potatoes to the US in November, prompted by a US threat that it would act if Canada did not. Canadian officials were concerned that an American action would be more difficult to reverse.

“We are confident that table stock potatoes can enter the United States with appropriate safeguards in place to ensure the US potato industry remains protected,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The US will require PEI potatoes, as well as the seed potatoes used to produce them, “originate from fields not known to be infested with potato wart or associated with known infestations,” the release stated.

Other conditions state that PEI potatoes must be:

  • washed and sprout-nipped.
  • graded to meet the US No. 1 standard.
  • officially inspected by the national plant protection organization of Canada and certified as meeting USDA requirements.

“APHIS will continue to work with Canada to increase confidence in its long-term management plan for potato wart, specifically to finish processing remaining samples associated with recent detections, to expand surveillance of non-regulated fields in PEI and to continue its national surveillance program ,” the release added.

‘A great start’

PEI Potato Board chair John Visser of Victoria-by-the-Sea says he doesn’t have details but the announcement sounds like “relatively good news … it’s a great start.”

‘It’s definitely the first positive news a lot of growers have heard for a long while,’ says PEI Potato Board Chair John Visser. (CBC)

He said he doesn’t know when Island growers will be able to begin shipping to the US but hopes it will happen soon, as American buyers are anxious to have PEI potatoes.

US potato growers fear that potato wart in Prince Edward Island is far from under control.—US National Potato Council

He’d like to see PEI seed potato shipments cleared for export to the US soon, too.

Visser said he and other growers still can’t understand why the potato wart management plan that has been in place for years was deemed inadequate, saying growers “have great faith” in it.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get our reputation back, and also compensation for the potatoes that have been destroyed and the damage that was done,” he said.

Eastern PEI grower Boyd Rose says he is pleased but has mixed emotions about the news. He said he’s hearing it could be days or weeks before Island growers can begin shipping to the US again—he’s hoping for next Monday.

He said even when the border does reopen, shipping the potatoes will be a huge challenge because it’s difficult to get trucks to go to the US

Rose said farmers will never make up for the last four months of lost sales, calling it a “major hit … a mental nightmare.”

Bibeau coming to PEI

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau called it a “very good step in the right direction. I think these are reasonable conditions and based on science.”

Bags of Prince Edward Island potatoes were given away in front of Parliament in Ottawa in December as PEI farmers lobbied the Canadian government to open the US border to its exports. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In an interview with CBC News: Compass, Bibeau said she spoke Thursday with Vilsack, who said it would be “a matter of days” before the border reopens.

Potatoes previously shipped to the US were already being washed and sprout-nipped. She said the new US requirements are “a bit more specific about where the potatoes can come from.” She does not expect bags of potatoes will need to have added stickers indicating they are for eating only, as was the case when shipments resumed to Puerto Rico last month.

Bibeau said she will travel to PEI this weekend to meet with potato growers and will work with them on a “stronger management plan” for potato wart.

US growers ‘dismayed’

The US National Potato Council, the lobby group for American potato farmers, was quick to condemn the announcement as “disappointing.”

“We are dismayed to learn that USDA is allowing PEI table stock potatoes to resume shipments to the US prior to completing soil tests for the destructive potato wart disease,” a news release from the council said.

It said the frequency with which potato wart has been found on PEI, plus what it called a dramatic drop in the number of disease tests via soil samples, “should make US regulators question the prevalence of the disease on the Island.”

“Today’s announcement by USDA overlooks the severity of the disease,” the release said. “US potato growers fear that potato wart in Prince Edward Island is far from under control.”

‘Long-awaited good news’

PEI Premier Dennis King announced the border reopening in the legislature, calling it “long-awaited good news.”

‘It hasn’t been easy for anybody,’ PEI Premier Dennis King said Thursday of the potato wart crisis that closed to US border to PEI potatoes. (PEI Legislature)

He said some of the protocols to which PEI potatoes will be subject are “a little bit concerning.”

PEI Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker also offered congratulations, adding “the devil here is going to be in the details,” noting the Americans’ news release did not specify a date when the border would reopen and does not mention access to the US for PEI seed potatoes. He urged the government to look more carefully at its potato wart mitigation plan to ensure such a crisis doesn’t happen again.

Puerto Rico reopened in February

Island farmers saw some relief last month when the border was reopened to Puerto Rico, a major customer.

The US fresh potato market is worth about $120 million a year to PEI farmers. Unable to find markets for that many potatoes on short notice, farmers have had to destroy an estimated 300 million pounds (136 million kilograms) of potatoes.

Potato wart was first discovered on the Island in 2000, which also led to a border closure. A management plan was developed in consultation with the Americans that kept the border open for 20 years.

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