(March 14) Planned negotiations for a U.S.-Malaysian free trade agreement could bring expanded opportunities in Southeast Asia for U.S. fruit and vegetable exporters, said Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

“I’m pleased that Malaysia and the United States will be negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement that has the potential to enhance market access for U.S. agricultural exports,” he said in a March 8 news release.

Johanns noted that Malaysia is the fourth largest agricultural market for the U.S. in Southeast Asia. It purchased $390 million in U.S. fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, wheat, soybeans and other products last year.

The Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash., reports on its Web site that Malaysia’s import duty on apples, pears and cherries is now 5% of the value of the product. Beyond that, there is a 5% sales tax on fresh fruit imports, according to the council.

The Web site of the California Table Grape Commission, Fresno, notes that in 2004 Malaysia was the state’s third largest export market for California grapes, accounting for 2.6 million boxes of exports worth nearly $37 million.

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said total U.S. agriculture exports to Malaysia were $388 million, up 3% from 2004. U.S. grapes accounted for about $63 million in exports in 2005, up 16% from 2004. Meanwhile, U.S. apple exports of $25 million last year were up 13% compared with 2004.

Malaysia exports to the U.S. — substantially cocoa butter and palm oil — topped $661 million in 2005, the USDA said.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman said in a March 8 news release that the negotiations will begin after a 90-day consultation period with the U.S. Congress.