U.S.-China apple trade a step closer

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Fuji apples await transport from a Stemilt Growers Inc. orchard near Quincy, Wash., on Oct. 10. The U.S. is taking a first step in regaining access to China to U.S. apples and opening the U.S. market to Chinese apples.

WENATCHEE, Wash. — A first public step has been taken by the U.S. government that could lead to the trade of apples between China and the U.S. within the next year, the president of a Pacific Northwest trade groups says.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service opened a 30-day public comment period on Dec. 3 on its draft pest risk assessment for allowing Chinese apples into the U.S.

While the U.S. government does not like to admit there’s a link between allowing Chinese apples into the U.S. and gaining U.S. apple access into China, that’s what appears to be happening, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima. He spoke to Capital Press about the issue while attending the Washington State Horticultural Association meeting in Wenatchee. No public announcement of the development occurred at the meeting.

“We’re not trying to hype this. To us it’s a big issue but it’s also a routine step in the process,” Schlect said, while agreeing it is a step forward.

The Washington apple industry, which accounts for the vast majority of U.S. apple exports, long opposed allowing Chinese apples into the U.S. but dropped that opposition a year ago in an effort to gain full varietal access for U.S. apples in China. The reasoning is that Washington shippers stand to gain far more in sales in China than they lose to Chinese apples in the U.S. because of the high quality of Washington apples.

China accepted U.S. Red and Golden Delicious, but not other varieties for years, but cut off Reds and Goldens in August 2012, citing the detection of post-harvest diseases that it wants kept out of its apples. Washington industry officials believe the real reason was to pressure the U.S. into accepting Chinese apples.

Washington typically shipped about 500,000 boxes of apples annually into China before the closure and about 2 million more through Hong Kong.

Progress in both directions between the governments was made during annual bilateral phytosanitary talks the week of Nov. 4 in China, Schlect said.

Site visits to Washington state by China’s Administration of Quality Supervision Inspection and Quarantine have yet to occur to reopen China to Reds and Goldens, Schlect said. The hope is that Reds and Goldens will regain access during this shipping season and that full varietal access will come within the next year, he said.

“Nobody pretends it’s a great thing to have imported product from some major competitor, to have more product coming in. We have enough,” Schlect said. “But we export over 30 percent of our apples and our product is growing. China is a major market with hundreds of millions of new consumers. We think we have world-class apples that will compete nicely there.”

Washington apple shippers already compete with China in Canada, Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, he noted.

Packaging, quality and food safety issues likely will prevent China from surging in U.S. sales, he said.

“It’s important in China that it’s not a one-way street,” he said. “We understand their feeling that if they open to us, we should open to them.”

Movement is coming because new APHIS leadership is trying new approaches to open China to other commodities as well, he said.

APHIS considered hundreds of potential pests and identified 26 organisms of possible concern in its risk assessment, said Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Of the 26, five are listed as not candidates for risk and 21 are potential risks, Powers said.

A group of U.S. technical advisers from several states, known as TREETAC, will review the APHIS pest risk assessment and the Northwest Horticultural Council will comment on it after that, he said. Jim McFerson, manager of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission in Wenatchee, is chairman of TREETAC.

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