Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns has announced a new risk-based process for approving the importation of certain fruits and vegetables that continues stringent protections for U.S. agriculture, yet streamlines the lengthy rulemaking process, allowing USDA plant health specialists to better focus on more complex import issues.

"This new approach will allow us to focus less on administrative processes and more on the science of facilitating imports that do not pose a risk of introducing foreign pests and diseases," said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. "A more efficient review process for imported fruits and vegetables should also help to expand market access for U.S. agricultural exports as other countries recognize U.S. efforts to encourage trade."

The new risk-based process for approving certain fruits and vegetables applies only to commodities that can be imported into the United States subject to one or more of five designated phytosanitary measures.

These measures include port-of-entry inspection, approved post-harvest treatment, a phytosanitary certificate verifying that it originated from a pest-free area, a phytosanitary certificate verifying that it is free from a specified pest or pests or that the risk associated with the commodity can be mitigated through commercial practices.

The importation of fruits and vegetables that require additional phytosanitary measures will continue to undergo the full rulemaking process.

The changes in the rule do not alter which fruits and vegetables are currently eligible for importation or how the risks associated with those commodities are evaluated or mitigated. This rule only makes more timely the approval of fruits and vegetables that are safe for importation into the United States.

It is important to remember that the regulation of imported fruits and vegetables is a shared responsibility between USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). USDA regulates the importation of fruits and vegetables to ensure they are free of plant pests that could potentially compromise the safety of U.S. agriculture. FDA is responsible for ensuring that the fruits and vegetables consumed by Americans, whether grown domestically or imported from other countries, meet the highest health and safety standards. Both departments work closely together to safeguard U.S. agricultural health and safety.

USDA is also establishing a notice-based process for approving pest-free areas in exporting countries. This approach, which is similar to the commodity approval process, allows the agency to be more responsive in recognizing changes in the pest-free status of foreign areas. The new process will enable USDA to more efficiently and effectively reflect the actual pest status of a particular area.

To learn more about these revisions, please visit http://www.aphis.usda.gov/ppq/Q56/index.html.

USDA is also in the process of creating a Web site that will allow customers to search, by commodity or country, for eligible fruits and vegetables and their requirements for importation into the United States. The goal is to launch the system this winter.

This final rule was scheduled for publication in the July 18 Federal Register and will become effective Aug. 17.