(Feb. 23) U.S. produce exporters should not expect much from the free trade agreement being developed between the U.S. and Australia.

As long as the U.S. bases its trade treaties on the premise of reducing tariffs, and not much else, the produce industry will lose out to notoriously protectionist nations.

That certainly is true of Australia, which for years has excluded most U.S. produce on rather flimsy phytosanitary objections. Apples are kept out because of concerns over fire blight, even though the World Trade Organization has said mature apples cannot transmit the disease. Potatoes are kept out for phytosanitary reasons, too.

Only in the past couple of years did the U.S. industry gain access for its table grapes — and only then after agreeing to fumigate the fruit with methyl bromide.

But that chemical is slated for elimination from use, and fumigation pretty much ruins the shelf life of table grapes, meaning more costly airfreight must be used to effectively reach consumers before product quality declines.

And U.S. citrus shippers complain that Australian fumigation standards can render their products basically unsellable.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoelick may have been able to hammer out a deal with Australia Feb. 8, but consummating the agreement will have to wait until Congress takes up the issue. That may not be until after the presidential inauguration in January, some say.

If Congress approves the deal, there may be some hope for U.S. exporters in a technical working group, consisting of U.S. and Australian government and industry leaders, that will be established to address phytosanitary restraints. Eliminating shipping barriers to citrus, apples and stone fruit is the top priority.

Without accessions in this area, Australia and its 20 million consumers might as well stay disconnected from the U.S. market.