(Dec. 26) Featuring high prices and limited volume, the first trial shipment of Chinese fuji apples arrived in Vancouver, British Columbia, in early December.

The inaugural season will involve eight shipments under trial access protocols permitted by the Canadian government, according to trade sources.

There is no firm volume estimate for the deal for the 2002-03 season, but imports of about eight container loads are anticipated, according to a press release from the The Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver.

Oppenheimer was one of the importers involved in the first trial shipment.

David Nelley, director of pipfruit and pineapple categories for Oppenheimer, said in an email response that the Chinese fujis were sold to a few mainstream retailers who specialize in marketing to the Asian community, as well as to a Vancouver wholesaler who has access to the Asian market in that city.

Oppenheimer became involved in this deal through its affiliation with a Chinese pear grower who obtained trial access for apples, Nelley said.

He said the fruit was sold at about $35 per box, compared with U.S. and Canadian fujis in the market at $18-22 per carton.

Nelley said the fruit was met with interest, though the price was prohibitive for some.

“Because the volume we handled was quite small, we were able to sell it through despite the price,” he said.

Nelley said Oppenheimer is evaluating future involvement with Chinese fujis but said cost of the product and the nature of the deal are two limiting factors.

The arrival and sale of the apples in Canada was viewed with concern by some U.S. apple industry observers, who wonder aloud whether the trial shipments of today will become the boatload quantities of tomorrow.

“China is the biggest apple producing country in the world, and it is a concern that they are coming into North America,” said Steve Terry, marketing director for Trout-Blue Chelan Inc., Chelan, Wash.

“If they continue to bring fruit into North America, it will impact what we can do in the state of Washington.”

While the trial volume is limited to a few containers this year, Terry said the shipments are likely to be a sign of things to come rather than a one-shot experiment.

“The thing that is scary is that before this year, they didn’t bring anything in,” he said.

Marketers said the limited trial in Canada raises questions — namely, if and when Chinese fresh apples would enter the U.S. market after getting established in the Canadian market.

“For guys down here, it makes you wonder how long will you be able to keep it out,” said Mac Riggan, sales manager at Gwin White & Prince, Wenatchee, Wash.

RULES OF ENTRY

Canada’s conditions of entry stipulate that the first arrivals must be grown on orchards approved by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

The apples are grown in paper bags for protection from pests on the tree and packed in white foam socks, an Oppenheimer news release said.

Mike Willett, vice president of scientific affairs for the Yakima, Wash.-based Northwest Horticultural Council, said Canada’s evaluation of the risk of Chinese apples shouldn’t be linked to the U.S. pest risk assessment.

“The USDA is doing the pest risk assessment for Chinese apples, and it hasn’t been completed,” he said. “I would hope that another country’s decision … doesn’t put pressure on our government.”

He said Canada’s pest risk assessment probably fails to note the complete pest risk picture.

“We definitely don’t think there should be any linkage between Canada and the U.S.,” he said.

Willett declined to speculate on the time line on when the U.S. will issue protocol for the importation of fresh apples from China. Most industry sources believe it will be years before Chinese apples are allowed into the U.S. market.

POSSIBLE MARKETS

Peter Leung, manager of PK Importers Ltd., Vancouver, said he had not seen the Chinese fujis on the market as of Dec. 26. However, he said he believes Chinese fujis would have a market in the Vancouver area, where he estimated the Chinese population at near 300,000.

High prices could discourage demand, however, especially considering strong fuji production in the U.S. Northwest and British Columbia.

If Chinese fuji apples move past the trial stage and enter Canada in volume, he predicted the prices would be perhaps 20% to 25% lower than North American pricing. “The f.o.b. price over there (China) is around $10-12 per carton,” he said.

However, some have suggested the power of Chinese fuji production in Asia markets and its possible impact on North America could lead growers to consider radical alternatives.

Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash., said at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting Dec. 2 that one long-term solution may require Washington to establish growing, marketing and packing operations in China.