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MRLs could pose trade barrier for U.S. fruit exports
MRLs could pose trade barrier for U.S. fruit exports

Market pressures are forcing growers to be more aware of the impacts of maximum residue levels (MRLs) on their product. Without attention to detail, they could be locked out of markets in the global food chain.

“For our industry to be consistent, we need to understand (MRLs),” said Mark Whalon, a professor and director of the Pesticide Alternatives Lab at Michigan State University (MSU).

MSU researchers have addressed “the MRL end game,” Whalon said, by developing a tool for growers. The MRL Probability Chart can be used by growers, shippers and processors to predict the risk of MRL detection in various domestic and international markets. It measures risk based on application rates, dates and handling practices.

“We looked at a number of key chemistries that are really important close to harvest for pest reasons and for residue degradation reasons,” Whalon said. “We are looking hard at these chemistries to be sure we’re in a good place as we move into a time when MRLs are going to drive the market.”

MRLs are the upper legal levels of a concentration for pesticide residues in or on food or feed, and are used to ensure the lowest possible consumer exposure to the properties of the active substance. In the United States, EPA sets limits on how much of a pesticide residue can remain on food and feed products or commodities. These pesticide residue limits are known as tolerances. Similar restrictions, many of which are more stringent, are seen in countries throughout the world.

“MRLs are crucial to growers because governments all over the world are regulating how much pesticide can be in a product,” Whalon told growers at the West Central Spring Horticultural Meeting in Hart, Michigan. “So if a grower wants to compete in the marketplace, he or she must be able to meet those MRL standards or they can’t gain access to that marketplace.”

Whalon said tart cherry growers in particular should be sensitive to MRLs that could be present during the harvesting process.

“When we look at where we export, we have to be much more careful,” he said. “We can’t just blend everything and send it to market. With tart cherries, once they’re processed, they all look alike. The issue is MRLs in cherries.

“(Cherry producers) are faced with a number of real challenges because they harvest their fruit mechanically into different kinds of containers, and some of those containers go to cooling pads where the cherries are cooled off so they don’t split, and then they are transported to a processor where they can be frozen or dried or made into about 20 different products,” he said.

“So for cherry producers, they have a real challenge to get that crop off at the exact right time, to get that crop cooled off and get it to a processor rapidly so that the best-quality cherry can be harvested and their yields and payment for those cherries will be high,” he said.

Whalon said global MRL standards demand growers’ attention. He said U.S. MRL restrictions are often more lenient than those of other countries.

“MRLs are ubiquitous across all fresh fruit and beyond that as well, so growers … all have the same challenge. That is getting a really good product to the marketplace with low MRLs – with low pesticide residues. Therefore, the strategies around developing the best quality with the least amount of chemical inputs is the goal, and that’s what all countries across the world, including the U.S., are trying to do.

“So what you have is a very competitive atmosphere and a very competitive marketplace for the very best kinds of produce that we can develop and that we can sell,” Whalon said.

While MRLs have a direct application to apples and other crops as well, Whalon focused on tart cherries during his presentation.

“We’re very challenged these days, with a whole major shift of chemistries moving into our production system,” Whalon said. “Some are much easier to work with from a safety standpoint, but from  the standpoint of MRLs they can be much more challenging.”

Michigan tops the charts in terms of worldwide tart cherry production, Whalon said, but high MRL standards are making it difficult to gain entry into some markets.

“Out of every country in the world that produces tart cherries, Michigan is the leader by far. The closest to the U.S. is Canada,” he said.

He said all European countries produce cherries, and the continent is one of the largest international markets. It also is one of the most difficult in the world to import cherries into.

 “New Zealand (which Whalon visited earlier this year) is the biggest exporter of tree fruit to the U.K. (United Kingdom),” he said. “Almost 90 percent of their apple crop they give to Europe. Their target acceptance level for MRLs is 30 percent of what the standard in Europe is. We can barely meet it for some of our production systems.”

He said those kinds of restrictions are why it’s so important for Michigan’s apple and cherry growers to reduce potential MRL violations.

“If you get nailed with a crop with residues that are over, it could break you, depending on what you’re doing with your crop,” Whalon said.

– Gary Pullano

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