United States allows shipments of P.E.I. potatoes to resume to Puerto Rico

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WASHINGTON — The United States Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday it will allow the resumption of shipments of Prince Edward Island potatoes to Puerto Rico.

Exports to Puerto Rico and the continental United States have been on hold since November following the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields.

The fungal parasite spreads through the movement of infected potatoes, soil and farm equipment, and though it poses no threat to human health, it leaves potatoes disfigured and can greatly decrease crop yields.

The Canadian government imposed the ban on the export of table-stock potatoes — which are used for food not planting — on Nov. 22 to avoid a U.S. ban, and the United States said it needed to review Canadian mitigation efforts before shipments could resume.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the importation of the potatoes under specified conditions poses little risk of introducing potato wart disease to Puerto Rico, which does not farm potatoes.

“It is critical that we base our agricultural trade decisions on sound science,” Vilsack said in a written statement. “After considering Puerto Rico’s low risk for potato wart due to climate conditions, as well as the lack of a commercial potato production industry on the island, we are confident that with appropriate mitigations in place, this trade can resume safely.”

Puerto Rico usually gets 80 to 85 per cent of its potatoes from Prince Edward Island, representing about a quarter of the province’s potato exports to the United States.

Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Island MP Lawrence MacAulay travelled to Washington Jan. 27 to discuss the trade issue with U.S. officials and explain what Canada was doing to prevent the spread of potato wart. “These potatoes come from fields that are not known for ever having potato wart,” Bibeau said in an interview following the meeting.

The exports to Puerto Rico can resume as of Wednesday as long as P.E.I. adheres to specific USDA requirements and Canadian Food Inspection Agency mitigation measures.

In an interview late Tuesday, Bibeau said the U.S. requirements include an extra label on the bags of potatoes. “They are not to be planted and are for sale in Puerto Rico only,” she said, describing the label as a reasonable request.

She said the U.S. also wants assurances around traceability. “They want to be sure that the seed potatoes used to grow the table-stock potatoes do not come from regulated land where potato wart has been found before,” she said.

U.S. officials still have to make a decision concerning exports to the continental United States. Bibeau said Vilsack assured her in a phone call Tuesday that decision will be made soon.

“It’s a matter of weeks, not months,” she said. “Recognizing the potatoes can be safely exported to Puerto Rico is a big step in the right direction.”

Prince Edward Island Premier Dennis King welcomed the announcement, saying it’s the first bit of good news for the potato industry in many weeks.

“While we enjoy this positive news, every week that we remain locked out of our major market, millions of pounds of high-quality and safe potatoes, that should be eaten, are being destroyed while our multi-generational Island family farms are hurting,” King said in a written statement.

Meanwhile in Washington, the U.S. National Potato Council said it was pleased with the news and measures to prevent potatoes shipped to Puerto Rico from being resold on the U.S. mainland.

In a statement, council CEO Kam Quarles said potato wart has to be kept out of the United States. “If it were allowed to become established in U.S. potato production areas in the future, the direct costs would likely be more than $300 million annually and billions more annually in indirect damage,” he wrote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2022.

— By Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.

The Canadian Press

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