UPDATED: APHIS slaps 60-day stay on final rule on lemon imports from Argentina

(UPDATED, 4:29 p.m.)

Just two days after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service issued a 60-day stay on the USDA's final rule issued Dec. 23 that opened the door for lemons from Argentina to enter the U.S.

The USDA issued a news release about the stay on Jan. 22, in which it said it was acting in "accordance with guidance from the White House issued Jan. 20."

Trump campaigned on trade issues like this, said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter, Calif.-based California Citrus Mutual.

"There can't be a trade agreement that creates more vulnerabilities, whether that is lost jobs or revenue for growers or (one) as we are arguing, that creates more pest and disease vulnerabilities," Nelsen said.

"We were hoping that this lemon proposal would be delayed and then subject to some reevaluation and looks like that is going to happen," Nelsen said Jan. 23.

Nelsen said the USDA too easily dismissed the threat of mites on the Argentine lemons that could spread disease and also that the fruit could have citrus black spot on it. That would represent a risk, especially in California urban areas where fruit is discarded and backyard citrus trees are common.

The stay on the lemon import rule also appeared to be part of the Trump administration's directive to agencies Jan. 20 to freeze new or pending regulations to give the administration time to review them. A spokesman for USDA APHIS did not return calls requesting comment Jan. 23.

Western Growers president and CEO Tom Nassif on Dec. 27 had asked the incoming Trump administration to suspend the USDA's rule allowing lemon imports from Argentina.

"There remain industry questions and concerns about the timing of the site visit by USDA, and whether political considerations unduly influenced the timing of this approval," Nassif said in the letter.

Leaders of California Citrus Mutual also objected to the USDA rule allowing imports of Argentine lemons, citing pest concerns.

While the USDA's final rule was effective Jan. 20, no lemons from Argentina have been exported to the U.S. yet.

When the rule was issued, the USDA said the U.S. and Argentina must finalize and sign a work plan and six months of fruit fly trapping data must be collected and verified.

Argentina lemon exporters have been seeking USDA approval for market access for more than a decade.