Japan Opens Door Wider for American Apples

UNITED States apple growers are finally poised to take a bite out of the Japanese market.

After 22 years of dashing US hopes, the Japanese government appears to have changed its protectionist stance. Last week Mickey Kantor, the White House trade representative, said Japan had agreed to ``move expeditiously'' to allow apples harvested next year to enter Japan in the winter of 1995.

The US Agriculture Department predicts first-year sales to Japan of about $15 million, reaching $75 million after five years. ``Right now it sounds good in the newspaper,'' says Mike Saunders, owner of Northwestern Fruit and Produce Company, based here in the central Washington apple heartland near Yakima. But, he cautions, ``we've heard this before.''

In 1971, Japan ostensibly opened its market to imports. ``But not a single apple from anywhere outside Japan has ever made it in,'' says Jim Thomas, spokesman for the Washington State Apple Commission.

Despite the state's clean track record on pest infestation, Tokyo's rules ``kept changing'' and orchard inspections were not done, he says. The recent agreement is viewed by growers as a breakthrough since it is Japan's first written pledge to settle on standards and make the needed inspections.

``I'm quite optimistic.... I think we've got a commitment,'' says Tom Mathison, chairman of the Northwest Fruit Exporters, a leader in the push to export apples to Japan. Earlier this year, Japan struck a similar deal with New Zealand, which has a different growing season from both Japan and the US.

Observers here cite several factors behind the accord: mounting Japanese media pressure in recent months, the free-trade bent of new Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, and urgings from US congressional leaders and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

Only orchards that choose to comply with strict pest-control standards will be able to participate. Those orchards are concentrated in Washington State, which accounts for the vast majority of US apple exports.

The deal promises to be a boon for Japanese consumers, who Mr. Thomas says can pay anywhere from $2 to $5 per apple. Although the country's strong apple growers' lobby has opposed imports, Thomas says domestic producers may not be adversely affected.

Japanese orchards produce mostly Fuji apples, while the US imports will initially be confined to the Red Delicious and Golden Delicious varieties. US growers predict that they will carve out a low-end niche in the market, selling snack apples, while Japanese growers continue to sell premium fruit at a higher price.

BUT US imports will not necessarily come cheap to Japanese consumers. Mr. Saunders says that distributors will boost their profits with a markup. That would come on top of costs such as setting and inspecting bug traps, shipping, and a 90-day quarantine period for all exported fruit.

Saunders's orchard is one of 56 in Washington that has already prepared to ship part of its produce to Japan. Together, growers had 3,500 acres that took the following steps this year in hopes of exporting to Japan:

* Hanging traps on trees to attract and kill apple worms.

* Ensuring that no apples contain coddling moths, another pest.

* Making sure there are no potential host plants to a disease called fire blight, either in the orchard or in a 500-meter buffer zone around it.

Japan currently consumes about 52 million boxes of apples a year, Thomas says. By comparison, the total output of the 3,500 US acres prepared for exports is around 700,000 boxes.

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