Australia wants Pacific Northwest cherries, but not the leaves and spurs, thank you.
Dr. Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs at the Northwest Horticultural Council, visited Australia in February to find out how to reduce the volume of Northwest cherries rejected on the basis of debris in the container. Debris means leaves and anything else that’s not part of the fruit or stem. "We were trying to come up with a definition of what they really didn’t want, and learn about the extent of the problem last year," Willett said.
Willett said some packages have contained a lot of leaves, and the Australians are afraid that pests might be arriving on the debris that they didn’t account for in their risk assessment.
A total of 555 shipments of U.S. cherries were exported to Australia last year. Five percent of those-all from the Pacific Northwest-were rejected because of debris in the carton. The importer had to sort out the debris from the boxes, which cost them a couple of dollars a box, Willett said.
Another 5 percent of the shipments-all from California-were rejected because of insects in the cartons, and those had to be refumigated.
Willett said both the shippers and inspectors need to be able to understand what constitutes debris, and what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
"People need to realize that there are criteria you can use to determine what needs to be out of the box," he said.
The fruit, stem, and small green fleshy parts of the spur, and perhaps some thin strips of the outer bark are acceptable. Anything else is not, he said.
The Northwest Hort Council and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service agreed to provide pictures of allowable versus prohibited debris to exporters before the coming cherry season.
Powdery mildew is another reason the Australian government is concerned about foliage arriving with the cherries. According to Australian scientists, the same species of mildew (Podosphaera clandestina) exists in Australia, but it does not attack sweet cherries.
Fruit growers in Australia have expressed concern, but Willett said he did not think it would be a major issue, as only three mildew-infected cherries have been found in fruit exported to Australia in the last three years.
The probability of mildew on U.S. cherries causing an infection in Australia does not seem high, because the seasons are opposite. There must be green tissue present in Australia when the fruit comes in for it to pose a risk. Willett said there is very little crossover between the arrival of Northwest cherries and bud break in Australia.
The Australian cherry industry would like to export to the United States, but most of the country is shut out because many of the cherries grown on the Australian mainland come from areas where the Queensland fruit fly may occur, Willett said.
The U.S. government has said it would allow imports only after fumigation at high temperatures, which impact fruit quality. Tasmania is allowed to ship, but produces a relatively small volume.
U.S. stone fruit producers would like to be able to ship other fruits, such as peaches and nectarines, to Australia, and retailers there appear to want stone fruits in their off season, Willett said.
"There’s a lot of interest in the market there because there are not a lot of other products available."
The Australian government has made the pest risk assessment a priority. Part of the assessment process involves obtaining input from the Australian fruit industry and the public.
The United States has supplied a pest list, and the Australian government has made a preliminary review. The U.S. fruit industry is waiting to find out what questions and phytosanitary concerns Australia might have.
There would likely be a small overlap at the end of the U.S. shipping season with early season, low-chill varieties of stone fruits produced in Australia.
Willett said the U.S. fruit industry hopes that the export protocol will not involve fumigation. Fumigated fruit must be airfreighted, he explained, which dramatically increases the cost. "And if you have to charge a lot of money, you’re not going to get the market share," he said.