(Jan. 21) SALINAS, Calif. — Lettuce growers who want better access to the Japanese market probably shouldn’t hold their breath.

But they shouldn’t blow it off, either, because a coalition of federal agencies is making progress in opening a market that many see as protectionist, particularly in seasons when Japanese domestic lettuce is in large supply.

In a Jan. 15 lettuce export summit, agriculture officials and researchers questioned grower-shippers and explained federal efforts to deal with stringent and occasionally arbitrarily applied Japanese phytosanitary regulations.

U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., moderated the presentation by representatives of the Foreign Agriculture Service, the Agricultural Research Service and Animal Plant Health Inspection Service.

Grower-shippers have been frustrated for more than 10 years with Japanese phytosanitary standards they say frequently are applied in a protectionist manner. They also have been frustrated with the slow, methodical approach the Japanese government takes in examining trade and agriculture issues before making a decision.

Farr said the purpose of the summit was to apprise shippers of federal efforts on their behalf, to help the industry communicate with federal agencies and to organize a federal/state task force to open Japanese markets.

“One of our key markets has always been Japan,” Farr told the gathering of about 50 people. “We need to work hard to remove some of these arbitrary phytosanitary barriers that Japan is putting up.”

Michael Guidicipietroof the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service told the summit that part of the problem is that Japan continues to insist on fumigation for 11 pests in lettuce that everyone knows already exist there. Japan admits it has the pests, but says they are under control and not widespread. Therefore, it claims the right to insist on fumigating.

Fumigation kills the pests. It also hurts the shelf life of the lettuce, he said.

The U.S. turned to the International Plant Protection Commission for assistance, and a vote of 57 to 1 found Japan in violation of trade rules, Guidicipietro said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. started a pilot pre-clearance program for lettuce shipments to Japan with limited success, he said. Only three shippers participated in the inaugural program last year, and only a few shipments passed.