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.

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.

“USDA bases all our agricultural trade decisions on sound science,” said US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “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.”

The US will require that PEI imports, 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.

US growers ‘dismayed’

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

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)

“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. Today’s decision to allow potatoes from untested fields to enter the US does not assuage their concerns.”

The release urged the USDA to enact stricter control measures.

‘Long-awaited good news’

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

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

King said he spoke with the PEI Potato Board’s general manager, Greg Donald, who also featured the move as good news.

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 opened in February

Island farmers saw some relief last month when the border was opened to Puerto Rico, which is 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, and that also led to a border closure. A management plan was developed in consultation with the Americans, and that kept the border open for 20 years.

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