Chinese apples would be allowed long-sought access to the U.S. under a proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The July 18 proposal would allow the world’s biggest apple producer the ability to export to the U.S. market, under certain phytosanitary conditions. Comments on the proposal are due Sept. 16, according to the USDA.

“This is just one step in the process,” said Jim Bair, president and CEO of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association. “We knew it was coming, and we will certainly be reviewing (the proposed rule) with our technical and trade experts.”

Under the terms of the proposal, apples from areas in China free of the Oriental fruit fly would have to be produced with a so-called systems approach, requiring registration of places of production and packinghouses, inspection for quarantine pests at set intervals by Chinese plant health officials, bagging of fruit, safeguarding, labeling, and importation in commercial consignments. The proposal said apples from areas in China in which Oriental fruit fly is known to exist could be imported into the continental U.S. if, in addition to those requirements, the apple are treated with fumigation and refrigeration.

Industry sources have indicated China has attempted to gain access for its fresh apples to the U.S. market for more than a decade, with the issue recently assuming top priority among Chinese trade officials.

In an analysis of possible effects from the rule, the USDA said that most of China’s fresh apple exports to the U.S. would likely be shipped to West Coast ports, primarily ones in California.

“California is also the largest market for Washington apples, and any effects of the proposed rule may be borne mainly by Washington and California apple growers, in particular, U.S. apple growers of the fuji variety,” according to the USDA proposal.

U.S. apple growers of other varieties and in other areas may also experience limited effects in terms of increased competition, according to the USDA.

Despite the fact that China is the world’s biggest apple producer, the USDA believes apple import volumes from China will be fairly modest.

Based on historic trade data, the USDA estimated that not more than 10,000 metric tons of fresh apples is expected to be imported from China into the continental U.S. annually, which would be the equivalent of about 5% of U.S. imports and 0.44% of the U.S. domestic fresh apple supply in 2012.

Acknowledging that China’s interest in exporting apples to the U.S. is a “recognized concern” of the U.S. apple industry, the USDA said the proposal could benefit growers, who also have sought expanded access to the Chinese apple market.

China allowed U.S. red and golden delicious varieties to be imported from the U.S. in 1999 but access was shut down in August 2012 because of China’s concerns about post-harvest decay and disease.

U.S. apple growers rely on international trade much more than their Chinese counterparts. The USDA said China exported about 3% of the fresh apples it produced in 2012, while the U.S. exported 30% of its fresh output.

“Given APHIS’ determination that the proposed rule will not result in significant adverse impacts on plant health, the proposed rule could provide additional trade opportunities for the two countries,” the USDA said in its proposal.