What could have been a financial disaster for the South Texas citrus industry has been averted, thanks to a recent finding by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to industry leaders and scientists at the Texas A&M-Kingsville Citrus Center at Weslaco.

"In October the Texas citrus industry implemented a self-imposed ban on shipping fruit to California, one of our most crucial markets," said Dr. Mani Skaria, a citrus pathologist at the center. "But now USDA has determined that it is safe to ship our citrus to citrus-producing states despite earlier fears that our citrus would spread sweet orange scab, a fungal disease whose symptoms look a lot like the normal wind scar blemishes found on most of our citrus."

After a risk assessment, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Plant Protection Quarantine determined on Dec. 22 that citrus fruit that undergoes the normal packing fruit treatment procedures eliminates the threat of the spread of sweet orange scab. Treatment includes washing the fruit before applying disinfectants, fungicides and wax, he said.

"What this means is that we're back to business as usual," said Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual in Mission. "Earlier regulations by USDA prohibited shipping any fruit with the SOS wind scar-like symptoms, which affected virtually all of our fruit. But now USDA says we can ship fruit as long as it goes through the packing-house procedures and is accompanied by documentation."

Prewett said the earlier restrictions had affected shippers to varying degrees but is thankful the restrictions were lifted relatively early in the shipping season and did not remain in effect for as long as they could have.