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Chinese producers will begin shipping fragrant pears to the United States this season—assuming that an on-site visit by U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors turns up no unforeseen pest or disease problems.

Mark Powers, vice president at the Northwest Horticultural Council, said if the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service doesn’t encounter any problems during the visit to China in September, the USDA will give the Chinese the green light to export, beginning this fall.

Chinese Ya pears (Pyrus bretschneideri) from Hebei and Shandong Provinces have been imported into the United States since 1997. However, imports were halted in 2001 after numerous shipments contained pears showing symptoms of fungal diseases.

Imports of Ya pears resumed the following season, but after a USDA research pathologist found Ya pears for sale that were infected with exotic species of Alternaria not found in the United States, the market was closed again. Pears already on the market were recalled, and shipments en route were returned to China.

The Chinese government pressed for the reopening of the market, and after sending a test shipment of Ya pears to the USDA headquarters in Beltsville, Maryland, in January 2006, Chinese producers were allowed to resume exports. A new protocol requires that the pears must be held in cold storage for three weeks and every pear be examined before it is shipped. In addition, samples consisting of 300 pears from each grower lot must be held at a temperature of 77 to 81°F for 21 to 24 days.

Dr. Rodney Roberts, plant pathologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wenatchee, Washington, who discovered the diseased pears, said one of the exotic Alternaria species on the pears is now described as A. yalifiiciens. Roberts refers to the resulting disease as chocolate spot, because a diseased pear turns a bitter-chocolate color. The infection can begin on the stem and progress down into the fruit. This disease differs from black spot, which affects the Japanese pear (Pyrus pyrifolia) and is caused by Alternaria gaisen.

Powers said USDA-APHIS is checking shipments of Chinese Ya pears on arrival, and the Hort Council is working with APHIS to make sure that they and the Chinese are doing all they’re supposed to do. The council has asked APHIS to provide an end-of-year report on any pests or disease detections or problems relating to the pears.

World’s largest producer

China is the world’s top pear producer. In 2004, it produced more than 10 million metric tons—about 65 percent of the world pear supply. However, most of the pears are consumed in China. In 2004, only 15 percent (318,000 metric tons) were exported, according to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Ya pears, which make up about 20 percent of China’s total pear production, are grown primarily in the province of Hebei in northeastern China, where the variety originated, the FAS reports. Neighboring Shandong Province produces a much smaller volume.

Ya pears account for about half of China’s total pear exports, and are China’s only significant fresh fruit export to the United States. Political pressure to keep the U.S. market open for Ya pears is believed to come directly from Hebei and Shandong, where Ya pear production makes up a large part of the local economy, the FAS states. However, most of China’s Ya pear exports are to Vietnam, Indonesia, and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Fragrant pears

Fragrant pears are grown in the Korla area of Xinjiang Province in western China, west of the Gobi Desert and bordering Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The area has hot, dry summers, and cold dry winters, with annual precipitation of 25 to 500 mm (1 to 20 inches), according to a USDA report. The area is watered by the Peacock River that comes from snow melt from the Tien Shan Mountains to the north.

The area was called Eastern Turkistan before it came under Chinese rule in 1949. Dr. Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs at the Horticultural Council, said the Chinese government has been moving Han Chinese people to the area to dilute the ethnic population of Moslem Uighurs, and has also been developing large irrigation projects in the area.

Chinese officials have been negotiating the export of several species of pears to the United States since the early 1990s. Ya pear imports were approved in 1995 under a systems approach. Much of the pest risk of the Ya pears was mitigated by the cultural practice of bagging the fruit during the growing season. Fragrant pears, grown only in Xinjiang Province, are considered to present different pest risks because the pest complex and climatic conditions differ from Hebei and Shandong Provinces. Bagging was said not to be feasible in Xinjiang because the bags acted as sails in the heavy winds, causing the fruit to drop.

APHIS asked China for information on 14 pests of concern that it had identified in relation to fragrant pears in Xinjiang Province. China responded that the pests did not occur in Korla, according to an APHIS report.

At bilateral meetings in the late 1990s, China pressed APHIS to proceed on the fragrant pear issue. In 1999, an APHIS delegation went to visit the area to assess the risk.

In 2003, AHPIS stated that it had enough information to propose allowing the importation of fragrant pears into the United States.

Powers said the U.S. pear industry is concerned about exotic mite species and diseases that might be found on the Chinese fragrant pears.

“One of our major concerns is that with China it’s very difficult to know what does exist. It’s difficult to know how thorough the Chinese have been in terms of evaluating the pest threats. On Ya pears, for instance, no one knew this disease (Alternaria) was a problem. It wasn’t specified in the pest list, and we’re not fabricating concerns. Our concerns have been proven justified.”

Willett said it’s not clear who owns the land on which the fragrant pear orchards have been developed. He said they could be owned by individual farmers or by the government.

“If it’s the state, and the state is the organization that’s conducting the pest risk assessment—I don’t think we know nearly enough,” he said. “We’re just not really sure that anybody has a full understanding of what the pest complex is.”