Central Valley citrus growers agreed Tuesday to a fruit inspection program -- possibly the first of its kind in California -- designed to keep freeze-damaged produce off store shelves.
Any citrus harvested Wednesday or later is to be held for 48 hours to allow time for damage to become apparent and give county inspectors an opportunity to inspect it.
Though labeled voluntary, the program announced late Tuesday afternoon by Kern County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo threatens unspecified penalties against packers who ship product before submitting a sample for testing purposes.
The program is expected to apply to all citrus grown in the Valley, regardless of where it is packed and shipped. The program will be in place indefinitely. Arroyo said he was not aware of a similar program before in the state.
Industry representatives embraced the program as an appropriate way to uphold the reputation of California citrus and keep low-quality competitors from leveraging the freeze to gain market share.
"As good as we think we are, we want to have a secondary program in place that ensures we're doing the best job possible to give the consumer what they want," said Joel Nelsen, president of the California Citrus Mutual trade group.
He emphasized that the program is not a moratorium or an enforced "hold," either of which would imply a lack of confidence in the quality of Valley citrus.
"OK, we've got damage. We're not going to deny that," Nelsen said. "But we don't have a significant amount."
The program reflects widespread concern that recent early morning temperatures below freezing in many parts of the Valley -- including Kern -- could result in the region's worst crop damage since 2007.
That year, half the county's citrus crop got cold enough that oranges' juice sacks burst, ruining $179 million worth of fruit. Valley agricultural commissioners put in place a temporary moratorium on picking fruit that winter.
Since Dec. 3, Valley citrus growers have spent an estimated $29 million using water, wind machines and helicopters to raise temperatures in their orchards.
Al Bates, Central Valley general manager at Sun Pacific, which owns 20,000 acres of mandarins in the region, said the new inspection program is not a lot to ask of packers.
"Holding the fruit an extra day, honestly, is not that big a deal," said Bates, who is a member of the industry group that brokered the agreement, the California Citrus Advisory Committee.
Commissioner Arroyo said he plans to reorganize his staff to make sure citrus packers and shippers receive the inspections they need in a timely manner.
"If it's done correctly, it shouldn't be any hinderance in them being able to get the commerce going, basically," he said.
On Monday, Arroyo's staff performed preliminary tests of navel oranges, lemons and mandarins gathered from across Kern County. All but one of 19 samples contained at least some damaged fruit, with lemons escaping significant impact. But as many as half the mandarin samples suffering enough harm to be thrown out.
Further testing is expected to take place Friday. Expectations are that the results will be worse than Monday's because overnight freezes have gotten longer and continued nightly.
Kern's 2012 citrus crop was valued at $620 million, with 54,000 acres harvested.
On Tuesday, the National Weather Service left in place a hard freeze warning across Kern County.
Carlos Molina, a meteorologist at the agency's Hanford office, said temperatures were expected to fall as low as 24 degrees for about five hours in rural parts of the county.
Sustained temperatures below 28 degrees is considered dangerous for citrus fruit, though the type of fruit and its sweetness can determine how susceptible it is to freeze damage.
The agency predicted Wednesday night lows of between 26 and 33 degrees in Kern County. But Molina said there may only be about three hours below 27 degrees.
Wednesday night and Thursday morning "may be a little iffy," he said.
Thursday night and Friday morning were looking to be warm enough to end the hard freeze warning, he said.