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Mainland ban hurts Hawaiian papaya

Papaya growers in Hawaii are up in arms because California - the biggest market for the tropical fruit - has clamped a lid on shipments at a time when production was expected to reach a record. What's blamed for the marketing obstacle is a fumigant used in Hawaii aimed at eliminating fruit flies.

The Papaya Administrative Committee, a private organization representing the industry, had projected a record high in production this year: 65 million pounds of the yellowish-orange fruit. It anticipated that most of the harvest, or 52.4 million pounds, would be exported, with 41.4 million pounds of the total destined for mainland United States and 10 million pounds for Japan (which also has banned the fruit).

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California normally accounts for 50 to 80 percent of total papaya consumption in mainland United States.

Major supermarket chains in the Golden State have refused to carry papayas treated with ethylene dibromide (EDB). Even though the chemical is used in compliance with government regulations, food stores are concerned about their potential liability if medical authorities conclude that EDB has carcinogenic effects.

The ban by major food stores has been on since early October, says Joel Nelson, executive vice-president, Fresh Produce Council, Los Angeles, a private trade organization. ''I don't see any major supermarkets stocking papayas in the immediate future,'' he adds.

Mr. Nelson blames red tape and paper work linked to California's OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act), a division of the state Industrial Relations Department, stemming from the fumigation of the fruit before it leaves Hawaii. He points out the fumigation procedure in the islands is different from mainland methods and the effects of the treatment are ''minuscule.'' Hawaii, he stresses, has been using EDB for about 20 years.

''It's one big bureaucratic mess,'' he concedes, ''and it's going to take a major compromise on Cal-OSHA's part'' before a normal flow of papayas resumes.

''Should the ban by California and Japan continue, papaya growers could suffer significant losses in revenues,'' notes the Bank of Hawaii, Honolulu. ''If total production reaches the estimated level and the ban on exports is not reversed, local markets could not absorb the substantially larger quantity intended for exports. Moreover, diverting papaya from export markets could depress prices locally to the extent that harvesting and shipping costs may not be recovered. Potential loss of revenues to papaya growers could be in the millions of dollars.''

The previous peak in Hawaiin papaya output was in 1978, with 64 million pounds. This dropped to 41 million pounds the following year before recovering somewhat to 48.9 million pounds last year. Growers were counting on this year's expected record crop to get them back on track.

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