Alphabet soup plagues ag-goods sellers
Agriculture, like the rest of the world, is thrashing about in a sea of acronyms, but one in particular threatens to scuttle the boat.
The culprit is MRL, usually referred to in the plural MRLs. It stands for maximum residue levels, referring to residues of pesticides or other crop-protection materials that might remain on agricultural products as they arrive at the market.
Measurements can be made to show levels as low as parts per billion, but standard samplings reveal parts per million. Even at that scale, a sneeze by an infected produce handler might leave enough flu virus on a watermelon to contaminate a military battalion.
Some of the customers to which California agricultural products are sold, both domestic and foreign, have been using MRLs as a means of restricting flow of the products. The practice amounts to a trade barrier that is a step or two beyond tariffs, and more subtle.
Last summer, the issue was addressed by a group of agricultural marketers, trade representatives and government personnel who regularly tip-toe around MRL inspections. Recently, more of them have been tripping over them. They met in San Francisco at a meeting arranged by the California Specialty Crops Council.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establishes MRLs whenever it registers an agricultural chemical. But individual buyers such as supermarkets can set their own levels, and more of them as well as foreign customers are doing that. Their tendencies are to set a more restrictive tolerance than the EPA designates.
For growers and shippers, keeping up with the different MRLs established by a list of customers can be challenging. Naturally, the most direct approach is to make sure the residues are so insignificant that every buyer accepts them. But some buyers set levels so unreasonably low that it is nearly impossible to meet them.
One of the participants in the San Francisco meeting said it is entirely possible to be well within the tolerance established by the EPA, but exceed the arbitrary tolerance set by a number of foreign countries or domestic customers. Among the home-grown companies that have engaged in this MRL bingo are WalMart, Coca-Cola and Fresh & Easy.
At the San Francisco session, speaker Phil Brindle, senior regulatory manager for BASF Agricultural Solutions, called the lack of harmony regarding MRLs a "nightmare." He said the secondary MRLs are undercutting and undermining the regulatory process in the U.S. and abroad.
Another speaker, Matt Lantz, director of international market access and chemical and technical services for Seattle-based Bryant Christie Inc., referred to the difficulty the practice imposes on growers and shippers. "The challenge to growers is that they can be within tolerance in the U. S. — and be illegal abroad." he said.
Coverage of the meeting and comments of the speakers were shared with the general farm industry in California by the popular biweekly publication Western Farm Press. An accredited online continuing-education course on "The ABCs of MRLs" has been established by the magazine. It has been approved for certified crop advisers.
Editor Harry Cline wrote that it takes an Excel spreadsheet the size of Rhode Island to keep track of the MRL requirements by buyers at home and abroad. On top of that, the levels can be changed at a moment's notice.
Farmers are used to receiving assistance in sticky situations from acronyms such as the USDA, CDFA or, if they are members, the CFBF. And many rely on UCCE. The MRL dilemma is only one of dozens to crop up recently. Perhaps an anti-acronym resolution needs to be adopted ASAP, even STAT, or for the senior set, PDQ.
CONTACT Don Curlee at email@example.com