(Oct. 24, 5:05 p.m.) China’s persistent quest to export fresh apples and pears to the U.S. came up again in trade talks between the U.S. and China this fall, but U.S. tree fruit and apple industry leaders cautioned against a rush to approve Chinese fresh apples and sand pears for political purposes.

Meanwhile, U.S. fresh potato industry leaders said they remain frustrated with the lack of progress of winning access to China’s market after five years of effort.

John Toaspern, vice president of international marketing for the Denver, Colo.-based U.S. Potato Board, said there has been no simple objection from the Chinese authorities.

“Everything just takes a really long time,” he said Oct. 21. Toaspern said China represents a potentially significant market for premium U.S. russet potatoes in foodservice operations.

Just as the U.S. potato industry has been frustrated with winning market access, China has been knocking on the door of the U.S. fresh apple market for some time.

A spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Embassy of China, who requested anonymity, said Chinese apple exporters have been working for about 10 years to enter the U.S. market.

China accounts for about half of world apple production, and the U.S. produces about 10% of world volume. Likewise, Chinese pear production and exports have grown rapidly, and in 2006 the USDA estimated China controlled 17% of world pear exports.

China’s labor costs are only about one-fourth as high as the U.S., and a 2004 Global Apple Study pegged China’s total production costs at less than half of the U.S.

U.S. apple industry leaders worry about numerous pests and diseases as well as severe price pressures on U.S. fresh apples if China gains access. China’s share of U.S. apple juice concentrate imports has climbed to more than 40% and taken a toll on returns for juice apples in the U.S.

News accounts of a mid-September meeting of the China-U.S. Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade indicated Chinese vice premier Wang Qisha co-chaired the meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer also attended the meeting, which took place near Los Angeles.

Melissa O’Dell, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said in an e-mail that the USDA’s Center for Plant Health Science and Technology is developing pest risk assessments for Chinese fresh apples and sand pears.

O’Dell said no additional fruits or vegetables from China are being considered for access to the U.S. market.

“Keep in mind that a (pest risk assessment) does not always result in market access. The answer could be that the pest risk can’t be adequately mitigated by currently approved risk-mitigation measures,” O’Dell said.

No political shortcuts

U.S. apple industry leaders said they believe China still has far to go before they satisfy pest and disease concerns of U.S. apple growers.

Nancy Foster, president of the Vienna, Va.-based U.S. Apple Association, said scientists have identified 50 pest and diseases that China’s apples have that U.S. apple do not.

All of those pests and diseases require accurate assessment and a mitigation plan before Chinese apples should be considered for U.S. access, Foster said.

The USDA shouldn’t help China get to where it needs to be, she said.

“Scientists from our government should not be assisting them in that effort. They need to do their own assessment,” she said.

While acknowledging that Chinese apples are discussed at every trade meeting between the U.S. and China, Foster said there is a scientific process that the U.S. government must follow.

“Political shortcuts are not acceptable,” he said. “There is a long way to go still, and any political solution is not a real solution,” she said.

Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash., said fresh ya pears and fragrant pears are imported from China. The USDA reported that U.S. imports of Chinese pears were $18.2 million in 2007.