How in the heck did this happen?

I heard that the first imports of Chinese apples have been accepted into Australia this year, and it set me back. China is the first country in 90 years that has been cleared to ship apples to Australia.

China? The punch line for food safety jokes? The bad actor for pesticide residues on vegetables?

China, the despised global peddler of cheap apple juice concentrate and the clumsy producer of about half of all the world's apples?

And Australia? The notoriously rigid plant quarantine system that has held out all would be international apple suppliers for 90 years?

Here is coverage of the first Chinese apple arrivals by ABC news.

From the story:

The first container of Chinese apples has arrived in Australia, in what is being slammed as a major threat to the local apple industry.

Apple and Pear Australia says more shipments are due to arrive this week, with the fruit expected to be on shelves in the next few days.

The Chairman of the New South Wales Farmers' Horticultural Committee and Orange district orchadist, Peter Darley, is urging local residents not to buy the imported fujis.

He says many bigger retailers have also refused to stock them.

"Woolworths, Coles and Aldi have suggested they will not stock those apples so it's probably possibly small retailers or large fruit barns, but I'm sort of thinking that maybe this will be a program for the Chinese New Year of course but if the consumer supports us, don't buy them," he said.

Here is coverage from a World New report:

The arrival of Chinese Fuji apples is the first time since 1921 that apples will be imported into Australia following a decision by Biosecurity Australia last year to allow imports from China.

The Chinese apples have arrived at wholesale markets in Sydney and are likely to start appearing in some retailers as early as this week.

Two of the nation's biggest retailers, Coles and Woolworths, have already shown their support for the Australian apple industry by refusing to stock Chinese apples.

"We're proud to say 96 per cent of Woolworths' fresh produce is grown in Australia and we never import if we can source suitable stock locally," said Paul Harker, one of Woolworths' senior business managers.

TK: How could China possibly crack the Australian market before apples from its near neighbor New Zealand and the U.S., its long time ally?

From April 14 coverage last year:

Reports this week said the World Trade Organisation had found against Australia's ban on New Zealand apples after a 90-year battle. The Chinese may taste success after just a decade.

TK: I'm bamboozled, flummoxed and otherwise stunned.

One long time apple industry observer I spoke with said that the decision to clear Chinese apple imports was likely leveraged with pure economics.

Whereas Australia has fought New Zealand apple exporters quest for market access tooth and nail all the way to the World Trade Organization,  Australian officials folded like a wet paper bag when China came calling.

China buys a huge amount of mining materials from Australia. Quid pro quo, as it were. What, we buy billions from you and you can't buy a few thousand cartons of apples?

Other reports indicate that New Zealand may break into the Australian market by the end of this year, with the first year of significant shipments to Australia in 2012.

The first cracks in the Australian apple market may be a good thing for U.S. apple exporters. One might expect that U.S. apples could win access in short order after China and New Zealand have set the precedent.

But the ability of Chinese apple exporters to win access to the notoriously tough Australian market is one sign that U.S. apple growers may have to face the same reality within a few years.

China has long been seeking access to the U.S. fresh apple market, with bilateral talks on the issue since 1998. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have asked for more information on hundreds of Chinese pests and diseases of concern.

This back and forth with China over pests and diseases may go on for only so long.

Guess what? As with Australia, China is a big customer of the U.S. For example, China buys a lot of T-bills from America. In November 2010, China held $895 billion in Treasury securities, the most of any country a big slice of the total foreign held securities of $4.3 trillion.

U.S. apple marketers also sell a fair amount of apples into the Chinese market now and feel there is room to grow. It is unlikely China will create more opportunity for U.S. apples  without some concessions in the U.S. market.

One would think that Chinese apples would face a big uphill public relations battle in the U.S., similar to what is happening now in Australia. Growers would sound alarms and most retailers would be hesitant to associate themselves with the product.

In any event, the dread of Chinese fresh apples in the U.S. may be a unifying note for American apple growers for some years to come. The real drama will begin after they arrive.