0819TVadwarnsCAaboutagpests.cfm TV ad warns Californians about agricultural pests
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TV ad warns Californians about agricultural pests

FRESNO, Calif. (AP)--The pigtailed girl skipping through the peach orchard is not as wholesome as she first appears. Soon she morphs into a swarm of bugs, letting television viewers know that a killer is on the loose.

The commercial, debuting in mid-August, is the federal government's warning to Californians that even the healthy looking fruits and vegetables they might smuggle into the state could harbor something deadly and damage its $39 billion agriculture industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture hopes this first paid media campaign to combat invasive pests convinces travelers tempted to break California' federal quarantine law that evil could be lurking.

"California is a huge gateway to the rest of the U.S.,'' said USDA spokesman Larry Hawkins. "It's not only that pests can arrive here, but the climate they need to colonize is also here. The assault is never ending.''

Just last month a Fresno sniff dog detected infested Indian curry leaves in a vacationer's duffel bag. Tests found a bug contaminated with a bacteria capable of devastating California's citrus industry.

The USDA in August set up quarantines around Imperial Beach in San Diego County after finding a new outbreak of Mediterranean fruit flies. Los Angeles County, which already has the Mexican and Asian fruit flies, was saddled with the Australian guava moth on Aug. 13. And the San Francisco and Monterey bay areas are suffering from the destructive Light Brown Apple Moth, which is devastating some Watsonville berry crops.

From fruit flies to underwater hydrilla choking water supplies in irrigation districts, nonnative bugs and plants cause tens of billions of dollars in losses annually nationwide to agriculture, power and water delivery systems, and forests. California is especially vulnerable because its mild climate and 400 varieties of commercial crops create a hospitable environment.

"It's cheaper to stop a pest from coming in than it is to get rid of it once it's here,'' said Mike Jarvis, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The TV campaign coincides with a renewed effort this year in California to man border inspection stations, some of which had been closed at night or on weekends in recent years for lack of funding. Money in the 2008 federal farm bill has supplemented state efforts.

Last year, state inspections of 30 million vehicles found 43,000 with plant material, including cattle feed and firewood, that violated the quarantine law. More than 9,000 bug specimens submitted to state diagnostic labs produced 2,500 capable of damaging crops and forests.

As the USDA's $3 million campaign runs through October, at least one trade group will be taking advantage of the heightened awareness. The California Citrus Research Board plans a campaign directed at the east Indian community across the western U.S. to warn that Asian citrus psyllids are drawn to curry.

"It's not at all unusual for people to send things from back home and they are just unaware of what that can do to agriculture,'' said Ted Batkin, president of the citrus board. "Once they learn why they should be careful, people can be very conscientious.''

The first USDA commercial is a nod to the Oscar-nominated role of Patty McCormack in "The Bad Seed,'' a pigtailed girl with murderous heart.

In the 30-second TV spot, fruit drops out of trees, then rots instantly. When the girl vaporizes into a cloud of bugs, some crawl menacingly on the camera's lens as row crops stretch across the Central Valley behind them.

"The concept was 'things are not quite what they seem,''' Hawkins said.

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