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Four things to know if you're giving citrus this season

Consumer Reports News: December 20, 2011 05:15 PM

In an effort called “The 12 Days of Citrus,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture is asking consumers who give (or get) gifts of oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and other citrus fruits to be careful not to spread several tree-killing diseases that are devastating citrus crops. Citrus fruit is under quarantine in every state on the nation’s southern border except New Mexico, as well as in some territories. That means it’s illegal to move live citrus plants, plant parts, budwood or cuttings from those states and that gifts of fruit must come from a certified packinghouse and be shipped under a permit issued by USDA.

The diseases are citrus greening, citrus canker, citrus black spot and sweet orange scab. A map on the USDA’s website, Save our Citrus, gives state-by-state details on affected areas.

Citrus greening disease, which is named for its green, misshapen fruit, has killed millions of citrus plants in the southeastern U.S. Citrus greening is spread by infected insects, the Asian citrus psyllid, that are no bigger than the head of a pin. Once infected, the trees produce fruit that’s unsuitable for sale as fresh fruit or for juice. Most infected trees die within a few years. . T

Citrus canker causes a citrus tree to decline in health and fruit production until it produces no fruit at all. Citrus canker is a bacterial disease that causes premature leaf and fruit drop. The main symptoms are lesions on the leaves, stems and fruit of the trees. While not harmful to humans, the disease affects the health and marketability of the fruit.

Citrus black spot, or Guignardia citricarpa, is a fungal disease characterized by dark, speckled spots or blotches on the rinds of the fruit. As one of the most devastating fungal diseases of citrus worldwide, it causes early fruit drop, reduces crop yield and leaves the highly blemished fruit unsuitable for sale.The disease is transmitted through spores released from fallen, decomposing citrus leaves.

Sweet orange scab is a fungal disease that results in unsightly, scab-like lesions developing on fruit rinds and, less often, on leaves and twigs. The damage produced is superficial and does not affect internal fruit quality or taste. Infected fruit is more likely to drop prematurely, and the scabby lesions reduce the fresh fruit’s market value.

The USDA asks that anyone considering a gift of citrus heed the following advice:
Be aware of quarantines. If you are thinking about giving citrus fruit, plants, or items made with citrus (such as floral arrangements, wreaths, potpourri or seasonings like kaffir lime leaves) be sure not to move them from quarantined states or territories. Not only are you risking spreading citrus diseases by transporting citrus outside of these areas, but it's also against the law.

Check the citrus supplier. Gift citrus fruit sold in a regulated state must be packed in a certified packinghouse and accompanied by a USDA certificate. Commercial fruit packers, Internet shippers and roadside vendors within regulated states should be able to prove they are in compliance with the federal quarantine. Before you buy, ask the vendor if their product is in compliance.

Keep homegrown citrus at home. Help reduce the spread of citrus diseases by not moving your homegrown citrus fruit or plants across state lines. Enjoy your fruit with friends and neighbors, but be sure to obtain a federal certificate if you're thinking of transporting your citrus outside of your state. To inquire about transporting your citrus, contact your USDA State Plant Health Director's office.

Avoid fines and penalties. Anyone who knowingly purchases citrus in violation of quarantine regulations and requirements, can incur penalties that range from $1,100 to $60,000 per violation. If you suspect citrus is being moved improperly, report your concerns to USDA's Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance toll-free hotline at (800) 877-3835.

Mary H.J. Farrell

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