(March 25) Japanese phytosanitary restrictions on U.S. apples are expensive and unnecessary, and the Bush administration is taking the issue to the World Trade Organization in an attempt to find a remedy. That move is correct and needed, but, unfortunately, it won’t help Northwest fruit exporters move fruit to Japan in the short term.

More words than this space allows could describe the perilous path U.S. apples have endured in trying to establish a toehold in the demanding market. The Japanese accepted its first volume shipments of U.S. apples in early 1995. After a strong early presence, the market declined in the face of lukewarm acceptance of red and golden delicious fruit — the only varieties initially granted access to the market. A WTO ruling helped exporters win access for the fuji apple and other varieties by 1999, but the weight of heavy expenses tied to orchard certification made subsequent export attempts futile.

No apples have been shipped from the Northwest to Japan in the 2001-02 season, and only one exporter and orchard block remain in the program. The fixed costs of bringing Japan’s inspectors to Washington three times during the growing season are too much to bear.

U.S. apple industry officials point out there is no evidence to suggest that fire blight can be transmitted on mature, symptomless fruit.

It is hard to say where U.S. apple sales to Japan might be if exporters were granted access 25 years ago, when efforts to gain access were already ongoing. Given a chance to compete, U.S. apples would have attracted a loyal core of consumers.

It is an injustice to the American apple grower, an affront to the U.S. government and a penalty to their own people that the government of Japan so doggedly pursues protection for its growers.

High tariffs with honest and transparent phytosanitary regulations are better than the insufferable purgatory of dealing with Japan’s nontariff barriers.

If this apple dispute cannot be resolved through bilateral consultations, the matter will be referred to a WTO dispute settlement panel.

Whether justice will be served is unknown. But it is time to find out.