P.E.I. can resume exporting potatoes to Puerto Rico Wednesday

The United States has agreed to resume imports of P.E.I. table stock potatoes to Puerto Rico as of Wednesday.

Canada's agriculture minister says work being 'expedited' to get spuds into mainland U.S.

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the fresh potato trade to the United States and its territory of Puerto Rico. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The United States has agreed to let imports of P.E.I. table stock potatoes to Puerto Rico resume as of Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made the announcement in a news release Tuesday.

"It is critical that we base our agricultural trade decisions on sound science," Vilsack said in the release. "After considering Puerto Rico's low risk for potato wart due to climate conditions, as well as the lack of a commercial potato production industry on the island, we are confident that with appropriate mitigations in place this trade can resume safely, and the U.S. potato industry will remain protected."

Conditions regarding matters such as labelling will apply as potato shipments resume to the U.S. territory, according to the office of Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.

Randy Visser, president of G Visser & Sons in Orwell Cove, P.E.I., said the news comes as a relief to potato farmers.

"We were eagerly anticipating the news and really a little bit on pins and needles this week on whether it was going to happen in time to start packing this week for Puerto Rico, and given that it's not quite the middle of the week yet we have some time to put some loads together and that's really good."

Visser said about 20 per cent of his potato sales go to Puerto Rico. He said reopening that market means fewer potatoes will have to be destroyed.

MP Lawrence MacAulay, who represents Prince Edward Island in the federal cabinet, said government has been doing everything it can to get the "world-class potatoes" moving back across the border.

"This is a vitally important first step to resuming trade to the rest of the U.S. market," he said in a statement.

Bags of Prince Edward Island potatoes are unloaded from a transport truck on Dec. 8, 2021, in Ottawa as the potato industry lobbied the federal government to overturn the export ban. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

P.E.I. Premier Dennis King thanked MacAulay for his work on the file in a statement of his own Tuesday afternoon, saying it is "imperative" to get the rest of the U.S. market reopened to P.E.I. potatoes as soon as possible.

"Every week that we remain locked out of our major market, millions of pounds of high-quality and safe potatoes that should be eaten are being destroyed while our multi-generational Island family farms are hurting."

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the export of fresh P.E.I. potatoes to the United States and its territory of Puerto Rico following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields. Wart is a fungus that disfigures potatoes so that they are unmarketable and reduces yields, but poses no health risk to humans. 

At the time, CFIA officials said they were acting so that American officials didn't impose a unilateral ban that would be harder to get lifted.

That decision brought to a sudden halt exports that are usually worth about $120 million per year to the P.E.I. economy.

On Jan. 27, Bibeau and MacAulay met with Vilsack and his officials in Washington, D.C. to try to get the market reopened. 

Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay answer questions after meeting with U.S. officials about the potato ban on Jan. 27, 2022. (CBC)

Tuesday's news on the Puerto Rico front followed a call involving Bibeau and Vilsack.

"As the government of Canada has said all along, exports of P.E.I. table stock potatoes to Puerto Rico represent a negligible risk for the transmission of potato wart, given that Puerto Rico does not produce commercial potatoes and that we have strong and effective risk mitigation measures in place," Bibeau said in an email statement to CBC.

Bibeau said the United States Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is currently working on an expedited manner on their analysis for importing P.E.I. table stock potatoes to the continental United States.


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