Citrus canker, greening remain major concerns of industry

02/10/2012 11:56:00 AM
Jim Offner

File PhotoTwo words — canker and greening — continue to send shudders through the U.S. citrus industry.

Huanglongbing, also known as citrus greening disease or HLB, tends to turn fruit green after ripening, and is the most widespread threat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, greening is “the most serious threat that the Florida citrus industry has ever faced.”

According to USDA, the bacteria that cause HLB — three species of Liberibacter — probably originated in China in the early 1900s. In countries where the disease is endemic, citrus trees begin to decline within 5 to 8 years after planting and rarely bear usable fruit.

Greening was first found in Florida in 2005, and, by 2008, it had been identified in most of the citrus growing counties in the state.

Now the disease is in Texas, detected in January. Although Asian citrus psyllids have been found in California, none tested positive with the disease.

Florida also continues to face an ongoing threat from citrus canker, a bacterial disease spread by wind, rain or contaminated equipment.

Canker, which hurricanes spread in Florida in 1986, 1995 and 1997, leads to premature leaf and fruit drop and a decline in citrus tree health and production of fruit. In addition, lesions on the fruit make it unmarketable, according to growers.

USDA ended funding in 2006 to remove canker-infested trees, as the agency decided it was no longer possible to eradicate the problem by removing trees.

For the moment, growers and shippers are working to stem the spread of such problems, and they’re reporting some success.

“We’re adhering to consumer safety regulations and are not packing any fruit that has canker,” said Al Finch, marketing director at Lake Hamilton-based Florida Classic Growers Inc., which, until 2010 was known as Diversified Citrus Marketing.

“We’re addressing the issue and complying to all food-safety regulations to assure our customers are not seeing fruit that has any problems.”

But the prevalence of canker remains a problem for Florida growers, said Richard Kinney, president of Lakeland-based Florida Citrus Packers Inc.

“It’s day to day,” he said. “Canker is spreading.”

The industry is making progress in its efforts, said David Mixon, senior vice president with Vero Beach, Fla.-based Seald Sweet International Inc.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The industry is investing a tremendous amount. There have been developments that are by far better than what they were.”

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