SAN FRANCISCO – LAWFUEL – The Law News Network – The United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced that Nagatoshi Morimoto, 57, pleaded guilty to one felony count of smuggling citrus cuttings from Japan to the United States that tested positive for the citrus canker virus – a potentially devastating, highly contagious virus that can destroy entire citrus crops. Pursuant to a plea agreement, Mr. Morimoto was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston to one month in prison, a $5,000 fine, and community service that requires Mr. Morimoto to distribute brochures both in Japan and in the U.S. that warn farmers about the virus and the consequences of illegally shipping citrus cuttings into the United States.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), citrus canker is a plant disease caused by a bacterial pathogen that affects a variety of citrus species and citrus relatives. Symptoms are brown, raised lesions surrounded by an oily, water-soaked margin and a yellow ring or halo appearing on leaves and fruit. These lesions render the fruit unmarketable and can cause infected fruit to drop from the trees before reaching maturity.
Mr. Morimoto was caught smuggling 450 citrus cuttings to the U.S. in April, 2004. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers intercepted three express mail shipments from Japan in April 2004. The shipments were labeled as “candy and chocolates” and “books and chocolates” but contained citrus cuttings. One of the shipments of cuttings tested positive for citrus canker. Citrus cuttings are grafted onto rootstock to grow a particular species of citrus.
“This office will not tolerate the illegal smuggling of citrus cuttings that threatens one of this state’s most valuable crops. Had this virus taken hold, the eradication effort and the loss of fruit crops could have cost citrus producers and consumers millions of dollars,” said U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan.
The USDA has stated that citrus canker may be one of the most devastating agricultural pests and diseases that threaten citrus crops. California produces 80% of the lemons, 28% of the tangerines, 21% of the oranges, and 10% of the grapefruit commercially grown in the United States. California is the second largest producer of citrus in the United States.
The disease was detected in the U.S. in Florida and other gulf coast states in 1910 and on the gulf coast of Florida in 1986. Both infestations were resolved by eradication programs conducted by the USDA and the affected states. In Florida, an eradication program began again in 1995 when an Asian strain of citrus canker was discovered in Miami. In 1997, the virus had spread to 13 other counties. To date, Florida has spent $20 million on eradication and compensation for lost trees, with another $44 million expected to be spent in the future.
According to the University of California Davis Agricultural Issues Center, the potential economic impact in California from a possible spread of the citrus canker virus has been estimated to be between $173 to $890 million, which includes estimated losses to citrus producers and consumers. In order to prevent the introduction of the disease into the United States, the importation of citrus plants and plant parts is prohibited under 7 C.F.12 §§ 319.19 and 319.28.
Stacey P. Geis is the AUSA who prosecuted the case. The prosecution is the result of a one-year investigation by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has also filed a lawsuit seeking civil penalties. See People of the State of California; and People of the State of California ex rel. Department of Food & Agriculture v. Morimoto Orchards USA, Inc., a California Corporation; Nagatoshi Morimoto, an individual, et. al.; CIV 233989.