PEI

P.E.I. potatoes could head to Puerto Rico within 2 weeks, minister says

The federal agriculture minister says she's optimistic that shipments of Prince Edward Island potatoes will start to head to Puerto Rico within two weeks, and to the mainland U.S. shortly after that, ending a ban in place since November.

Premier welcomes 'first flicker of good news' for industry in weeks

Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay answer questions after a Thursday meeting with officials in Washington about the ban on potato exports to the U.S. (CBC)

The federal agriculture minister says she's optimistic that shipments of Prince Edward Island potatoes will start to head to Puerto Rico within two weeks, and to the mainland U.S. shortly after that, ending a ban in place since November.

Marie-Claude Bibeau and P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay were in Washington on Thursday meeting with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

Bibeau said Vilsack agreed to ask the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to conduct a risk analysis of P.E.I. potatoes to Puerto Rico within two weeks, and for the mainland in the weeks after that.

She added: "I'm hopeful that we can see the market of Puerto Rico for table stock potatoes reopening within one, maybe two, weeks. He also gave directions to do it as fast as possible for the mainland."

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the fresh potato trade to the United States and its territory of Puerto Rico following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields — bringing to a sudden halt exports usually worth about $120 million per year to the P.E.I. economy.

The agency later said that if it hadn't imposed the ban, U.S. officials would have done it themselves. 

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

No risk to humans

Potato wart is a fungus that deforms tubers and makes them unmarketable, but does not pose a risk to humans. If it takes hold in an area, yields and profits can be greatly reduced. 

There's no final resolution, but Bibeau said Thursday's meeting went "very well."

"We had a very important discussion, obviously on potato wart, and on a path forward to reopen the market to table stock potatoes, starting with Puerto Rico in very short notice."

More than 80 per cent of Puerto Rico's potatoes usually come from P.E.I. The P.E.I. Potato Board says the Island ships $18-$20 million worth of potatoes to the U.S. territory in a normal production year. In 2020, sales to Puerto Rico accounted for about 25 per cent of the province's sales to the United States.

WATCH | Optimism about potatoes:

Canada's agriculture minister optimistic about P.E.I. potato shipments

10 months ago
Duration 1:32
Marie-Claude Bibeau says she hopes Prince Edward Island potatoes will start heading to Puerto Rico within weeks and the mainland U.S. shortly after. On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced it was suspending the fresh potato trade to the U.S. and Puerto Rico following the discovery of potato warts in two Island fields.

Bibeau said all the scientific evidence from the CFIA — showing rigorous controls that will prevent wart from spreading — has been passed on to APHIS. 

"As soon as APHIS gives us the green light, I can assure you that CFIA will start issuing export permits," she said.

"We are confident that it will be analyzed, and they will be able to have the same conclusion that we have, that there is a very negligible risk, and that we can reopen the market quickly."

MacAulay said it's the first sign of hope he's seen since the ban was imposed.

"Being a former potato grower, I know what it means. Hopefully it gives a little heart to the potato industry and P.E.I."

Premier Dennis King was quick to acknowledge the apparent breakthrough on Thursday evening.

"There seems to be encouraging news south of the border," he tweeted. "I want to thank Minister Bibeau and Minister MacAulay for going to Washington to reinforce the safety and quality of our potatoes and the importance of trade between our two nations.

"Still much to understand, and to be done — but this is the first flicker of good news for our potato industry in 8 weeks. We need to see our potatoes moving south of the border ASAP, and we can't stop working until the border is fully reopened."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued the trade ban in November based on the discovery of potato wart on two of the Island's fields. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

With files from Katie Simpson and Reuters

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