Whatever happened to... Apples to Japan
Good Fruit Grower revisits some hot topics of the past.
Washington apple industry representatives in Japan in 1995 with a daruma doll. Daruma dolls are traditionally used as good luck symbols. People fill in one eye of the daruma when they have a wish, and fill in the other when the wish comes true. Pictured
Both Washington apple shippers and Japanese consumers had high expectations when Japan opened its market to U.S. apples in 1995. Around 480,000 boxes of apples were exported to Japan during the first three months the --market was open, but then the honeymoon ended. The hype gave way to headlines such as, "Rotten apple sales follow Japan hoopla."
Few apples have been shipped to Japan since the first season, and none some years.
The export protocol required that orchards had to be inspected for fireblight three times during the growing season, with the first before the trees bloomed. This meant that growers had to commit to joining the export program before they knew what their crop or the market conditions would be for that season. After harvest, the apples had to go through a cold treatment and be fumigated to kill codling moth.
Japan insisted on its fireblight requirements even after research by U.S. scientists showed that the risk of mature apples carrying the fireblight bacteria to Japan were practically nil. In 2001, the U.S. Trade Representative took the case to the World Trade Organization, saying that Japan's restrictions on U.S. apples were not based on science. A WTO panel concurred, and, in 2005, Japan agreed to eliminate the fireblight regulations. However, apples still must be cold treated (with a Japanese inspector traveling to Washington to check the calibration of the cold room thermometers) and fumigated before shipping.
Though the WTO decision was considered a breakthrough, no Washington apples have been shipped to Japan since then, said Jim Archer, manager of Northwest Fruit Exporters.
The fumigation and cold treatment are a factor, he said. "Any time they have to do these extra processes, it's a disincentive, though I don't know that it's prohibitive. The real difficult and expensive part of the program, at least in my view, was the orchard component and all those inspections. It was terribly costly."
Doug Pauly at Northern Fruit Company, East Wenatchee, Washington, said his company was one of the leading shippers of apples to Japan during the first three seasons but dropped out of the program when it realized that fumigation was impacting the quality of the apples. The Japanese have high expectations in terms of quality, he said, and he believes that fumigated apples don't have the same flavor.
"I think it hurts the storing quality of the fruit, but the more important factor in my opinion is simply that the apples I would eat on this side pre-fumigation tasted good, but three weeks later, if you were eating the same apple in Japan, it did not have the normal eating quality.
"The analogy I would use is if Toyota had to drop every one of their vehicles from 20 feet off the pier when they came into the United States, they would not sell many cars because they'd have a damaged product on arrival. When we have to fumigate, that's what the Japanese consumers are getting, and there's little wonder they don't come back."
Cherries exported to Japan also must be fumigated, but Pauly believes the impact on fruit quality is more severe in apples. Methyl bromide does not mix well with water, and after cherries (which have a high water content) are treated, the methyl bromide quickly leaves the fruit. In apples, which have a hollow core and lower moisture content, the fumigant can remain in the fruit for several days, he said.
If the fumigation requirement were dropped, Japan would be a good market because consumers there appreciate high quality products, Pauly believes. "I think we would be extremely successful, and it would be a major market."
He noted that Washington has been successful in every export market it's ever gone into except Japan—the only one that requires fumigation.
David Martin, at Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, was involved in the first shipments to Japan and says the initial expectations were overly optimistic. "I think that could be said of any market we set our sights on," he added. "We always set out with the loftiest of ambitions."
But he believes that Japan could be a good market for Washington apples if the fumigation requirement was dropped because Washington now has a wider range of varieties to offer and fruit quality has improved.
At first, the only varieties Japan accepted were Red and Golden Delicious. Since then, the United States has successfully completed the codling moth trials necessary to gain access for Jonagold, Gala, Braeburn and Fuji.
"There would definitely be a market for our apples, especially in the mid- to late season in Japan—February, March, and April—when Japan's domestic crop is sold out to a certain extent, and apples are in shorter supply," Martin said.
If it were possible, with a moderate amount of effort and money, to get rid of the fumigation requirement, it would be in the industry's interest, he said, but it's a matter of priorities. Stemilt will devote its efforts to markets that have better opportunities, rather than spend time, effort, and money in Japan.
Mike Saunders, partner at Apple King LLC in Yakima, Washington, said his company put some Gala and Fuji apples into the cold treatment last year intending to export them to Japan, but didn't ship one apple. "There was just no market," he said.
He thinks the high prices for Washington apples last season could have been a factor, but he also believes that Japanese buyers are trying to protect their own apple industry, and that there won't be a market unless Japan has a crop failure or the United States has some other product to use as leverage to get apples in.
Saunders was in Japan for the fanfare of the market opening in 1995, and had expected sales to be good. "I don't think they liked Red Delicious. It was a different variety, and they liked the bicolored apples."
Brian Sand, sales manager at Auvil Fruit Company, Orondo, agrees that the fumigation requirements are a major barrier. He thinks the market has potential, especially late in the season, for Washington Fuji apples, which are grown without bagging and called "sun Fuji" in Japan. "We could definitely differentiate ourselves and have a certain market segment," he said.