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China could become a significant market for U.S. pears. Louis Ng, who represents the Pear Bureau Northwest in China, believes China could be importing 500,000 to 600,000 boxes of pears annually within the next five to ten years. That would make China the second-largest pear export market after Mexico. He believes the potential for large red pears is enormous, as people will buy them for gifts.

Last season, the Pacific Northwest pear industry exported 5.1 million boxes of pears (not including 1.4 million boxes shipped to Canada) at an average price of $23.97 a box, a record. Mexico was the largest market, taking 2.7 million boxes, followed by Brazil with 370,000 boxes.

The U.S. pear industry was granted access to China in January. Although that was towards the end of the 2012-2013 shipping season, more than 6,000 boxes were shipped there in February, and expectations are high for the coming season.

Jeff Correa, the Pear Bureau’s director of export promotions, said the Asia-Pacific region presents huge opportunities for the U.S. pear industry because of population growth, increases in disposable income, and a dramatic increase in consumption of fresh food.

Ng said that about 99 percent of the pears produced in China are Asian pear varieties. In 2010, the country produced 165,000 metric tons (equivalent to 9 million 40-pound boxes) of European pears. Because of their relatively short shelf life and the lack of a cold chain for transporting them to major markets, most European pears are consumed in the growing districts.

European pears are challenging to grow, partly because of their susceptibility to disease, and production costs have been rising, making local pears less competitive with imports.

The Pacific Northwest has a reputation for shipping good quality, safe pears, in multiple varieties, and Chinese consumers are becoming more concerned about food safety. The strong Chinese currency is also helping create a favorable market for imported pears.

However, most consumers are not familiar with soft-textured pears, and will need to learn how to ripen them, Ng said. Because of this, importers are reluctant to handle them, Ng said. They are marketing U.S. pears as a specialty item and selling them at high prices, regardless of the actual cost of the fruit.

The Pear Bureau is budgeting to spend more than $250,000 to promote pears in China in the coming season, using a push-and-pull strategy focusing on both consumers and the trade, said Ng, who has represented the Pear Bureau in Hong Kong since 1986.

The bureau will hold retail seminars showing the trade how to handle European pears and will try to dispel the current notion that when pears turn soft they’re rotting. It will also do consumer sampling in the three top markets: Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. The target volume for next season is 150,000 boxes.

The total export promotion budget for the coming season is $5.2 million, of which $3.5 million will come from the federal Market Access Promotion program.

Europe

Europe used to be a strong market for Northwest pears, but shipments have gradually fallen to the point where the Pear Bureau is wondering if it’s worthwhile ­promoting there.

Sales to the whole of Europe totaled less than 100,000 boxes last season, and the outlook seems even bleaker.

Correa said several years ago European retailers began setting their own food safety standards and doing their own testing, which made it difficult for exporters to do business there. Now, the European Union is about to lower the maximum residue levels (MRL) for two antioxidants commonly used on pears to prevent scald.

Dr. Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs at the Northwest Horticultural Council, said that the European Union has voted to reduce the MRL for DPA (diphenylamine) to 0.1 part per million, effective December or January. That level is so low that even fruit that hasn’t been treated could have unacceptable residues just from being run over the same packing line as treated fruit, he said.

The European Union is also expected to reduce the MRL for ethoxyquin to about the limit of detection—0.5 to 1.0 part per million.

Trade with Europe has also been affected by strong pricing for U.S. pears in recent seasons and an upward trend in Europe’s own pear production, Correa said.

The Pear Bureau’s export committee suggested cutting the budget for promotions in the United Kingdom and Germany because of low and inconsistent sales, and shifting it to more promising areas, such as China or India.

“To just throw money into that part of the world like we have been doing, I think, is a waste,” commented committee member Rob Stewart of Stadelman Fruit Company in Zillah, Washington.