Getting caught exceeding foreign customer-set residue levels or using an unregistered product can be very expensive. This is especially true for high value specialty crops, a rapidly growing export market.

Just ask Santa Maria, Calif., vegetable producer Eric Freitas.

Freitas Brothers Farm is a U.S. vegetable exporter to Japan and Taiwan. It monitors closely the MRL standards for those markets, which are some of the most onerous in the world. Freitas spends $50,000 per year lab testing produce to make sure products meet MRL standards.

However, last season Freitas almost suffered catastrophic financial losses when a load of produce bound for Japan tested above the MRL standards in a random sampling for a fungicide. For several years Freitas has been operating on an old Japan MRL standard that was unknowingly slashed from what once was a 5 ppm maximum to .10 ppm.

The red-tagged load  was the third going to Japan with 18 to follow, all treated with the same crop protection product. This meant 18 containers of perishable vegetables did not meet MRL standards for that particular fungicide, red tagging Freitas a “repeat offender.” This would have would have resulted in all future shipments from Freitas facing mandatory 100 percent sampling rather than random sampling. This would have put Freitas out of the Japanese export business because it would have meant all shipments would sit dockside for days or weeks awaiting testing, rendering the fresh market produce unmarketable.

“It would have shut us out of that market because our product would have to sit waiting for testing,” Freitas said.

Freitas immediately turned to his trade association, “but they moved slower than I felt comfortable with.” A plea for help to the U.S. Embassy in Japan elicited immediate help. “The sanctions were reversed in a week. I was very pleased with the way the embassy handled the situation.

“I thought we were educated, but we were not. It can be extremely costly to mess up,” said Freitas, who continues to closely monitor MRLs from customer countries as well as a very valuable and reliable database of foreign MRLs maintained by USDA.

Fortunately it was not a costly lesson for Freitas, but it was a sobering one that Freitas said has relegated him to using crop protection products with MRLs in the U.S. close to those of his foreign customers.

When a pest management decision is at hand at Kern County, Calif., table grape    operation Sunview Vineyards, the MRLs for the likely country recipient are the first thing scrutinized, according to Max Jehle, director of technical services for Sunview.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, we had never heard of MRLs. In the last five years MRLs are probably the first thing we consider in a pest management decision.” However, he added, that is “probably not the best way” to approach pest management, but it becomes imperative if a grower wants to market his crop overseas.

Sunview ships table grapes to 45 different countries and is also a major organic producer with 1,000 acres of organic table grapes. Jehle’s pest management decisions focus on biological pest control, if practical. However, if that does not protect the crop he can find himself making pest management decisions based on MRLs, and not good science.