Washington apples may start heading to China again next month.
Chinese agricultural officials have agreed to open their ports to Washington’s Red and Golden Delicious apples for the first time in two years pending one more visit from their scientists, industry officials said.
“This is the first step into reopening the market that has been closed since the beginning of 2012,” said Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council, which represents the region’s fruit industry on trade and policy issues.
China had allowed imports of the two apple varieties since 1993, but shut them down at the beginning of last year’s harvest due to concerns about a fungal disease.
U.S. officials claimed the disease was present at times but did not affect anything but crab apples, used in Washington for pollination.
They suspected China of using the disease as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations. China, the world’s largest producer of apples, wants in to American markets but the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have their own fears of disease and food safety.
Meanwhile, U.S. growers want to ship other varieties to China someday. The United States grows more apples than domestic consumers eat and relies on exports.
In early November, officials from both countries met in Xiamen, China, for annual plant safety talks. Willett attended to answer questions about technical issues, he said.
The Chinese have agreed to inspect 2013 Red and Golden Delicious apples in a sampling of warehouses, Willett said. If they are satisfied, they will allow shipments.
Meanwhile, officials with both countries are working on guidelines for orchard practices that would ensure long-term market access, he said.
They are less onerous than originally mandated by the Chinese.
They at first wanted only apples harvested from orchards in which all discarded fruit, leaves and twigs were removed, for example.
The Chinese have agreed to “tamp down the demands that don’t make biological sense,” Willett said.
The two sides talked about other varieties but came to no firm agreement, Willett said.
Apple exporters and importers are both optimistic and guarded.
“They’re very excited,” said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, which focuses on international marketing.
“They want free trade. They want Washington apples in there.”
However, they will believe it when they see it.
Trade negotiations are tricky, said Fryhover, who traveled to China just a few days after the technical talks with a 100-member trade Washington delegation that included Gov. Jay Inslee. Fryhover spent most of his time speaking with importers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
“There is optimism, but optimism is only as good as execution,” Fryhover said. “We still need to see the rules for execution.”