Apples fight for market in South Africa

South Africa

Packer says fumigation rules shorten shelf life

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

CHELAN, Wash. -- Chelan Fresh Marketing has been the first and virtually lone supplier of U.S. apples into South Africa for a little more than a year now.

But sales haven't been as good as expected and the future is uncertain because of fumigation of the fruit in South Africa for possible pests.

"There's always residue where pests may have lived. They are raising flags over that," said Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing.

Samples are tested in a lab, revealing no pests while the load sits, he said. Fumigation warms and cools the fruit, shortening its shelf life, he said.

"We have unique shape, color, wax and crunchiness. If one of those is missing, then the longevity of the program may not be there," Riggan said.

The company, among Washington's top apple marketers in volume, hoped to sell 40,000 boxes of Red Delicious to Freshmark, owner of Shop Rite stores in Cape Town, last season. Only 14,000 boxes were sold because of the fumigation, Riggan said.

It has sold 11,000 boxes so far this season, he said.

A California broker bought 1,000 boxes of Washington apples and shipped them to South Africa last year, but otherwise Chelan Fresh Marketing has had the market to itself, said Chris Scott, export trade specialist at the Washington Apple Commission.

Logistics initially was an issue for Chelan Fresh as shipments averaged 60 days on the water from Seattle to China and then through the Indian Ocean. The company has found two other routes that work better. One is shipping from Seattle through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic Ocean. The other is trucking to the East Coast and then shipping across the Atlantic. The alternatives shorten the trip to about 35 days.

Freshmark wants to expand its sales into Kenya and Nigeria, but the pest issues and high prices make it tough to do that, Riggan said.

South Africa, Australia and Japan banned U.S. apples for years, citing pest concerns, mainly fire blight, a bacterium that kills apple trees. The World Trade Organization struck down Japan's barriers in 2003, which helped the U.S. negotiate an end to South Africa's ban. Australia still bans U.S. apples.

South Africa lifted its ban in September 2009. Chelan Fresh Marketing had been working in advance of that with Freshmark and began shipping that fall with the first load arriving Dec. 18, 2009.

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