Pacific Northwest apple and pear exports to Europe have dropped dramatically since pesticide ­regulations were harmonized among members of the European Union. Restrictive pesticide residue limits of the European Union have required U.S. producers to adopt chemical use practices and compliance systems unique to the EU market, and that’s cut into exports, says a Pacific Northwest tree fruit industry spokes­person.

In the last six years, apple exports from the Northwest have declined from more than 1.35 million to around 500,000 boxes, a drop of 60 percent, and pears went from around 300,000 to less than 145,000 boxes, a decline of about 50 percent for the same time frame, said Dr. Michael Willett, vice president for scientific affairs for the Northwest Horticultural Council. “The East Coast ships about a half million cartons of apples to the United Kingdom, and they, too, have lost ­substantial market due to a wax issue.”

When the European Union harmonized regulations governing plant protection chemicals in 2008, the harmonization made it easier for EU countries to ship to each other, Willett explained. But the new requirements also included more stringent maximum residue limits, or MRLs, that apply to imported products. MRLs for a chemical used in common fruit waxes and two chemicals used to prevent scald in apples and pears have been causing problems for U.S. fruit exporters.

Morpholine in wax

Morpholine, an ingredient used as an emulsifier in fruit wax formulations, is approved for use in most major apple-producing countries, said Willett. But morpholine, along with other amines that improve the wax shine, are not approved in the European Union, meaning there is no legal MRL. Because morpholine can be detected down to 0.1 parts per million, inadvertent residues have been a problem on U.S. apples, even when packing lines have been cleaned for runs of fruit ­without the morpholine wax.

Detection of the chemical in Chilean apples in late 2010 caused disruption in the market, he said, adding that food products in the European Union are tested by private laboratories, not by ­government entities.

“There are effective alternative ingredients in wax formulations that don’t contain amines, such as ammonia,” Willett said. “But the alternatives change the formulation properties just enough so that when the wax dries, the coating on fruit is not as shiny or ­lustrous as when morpholine is used.” For packers, it’s difficult to segregate product for different markets, he added.

Efforts are underway to establish an MRL for morpholine of 0.3 ppm or 0.5 ppm, but such action would likely require a risk assessment to be done by EU ­officials, Willett said.

Scald control

Both DPA (diphenylamine) and ethoxyquin, used to control postharvest scald in apples and pears, have created market challenges for U.S. pome fruit exported to the European Union. In May 2010, sales of DPA fungicides were halted by the European Union, although use on apples and pears can continue for the near future under an emergency EU decree in France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

A consortium of DPA registrants is submitting data to the European Union to support continued use, he said. The current MRL in the European Union for DPA is 5 ppm for apples and 10 ppm for pears. No impact on the current 2011-2012 crop is expected, Willett said, but “this is an issue to watch.”

Last March, EU officials decided to remove ethoxyquin from their list of approved materials for pears and allow a grace period until September 2012, or longer, for fruit with residues of 3 ppm. “This action has potential to be a big ­challenge for U.S. pear producers,” he said.

About 15 years ago, Northwest pear growers helped fund $2 million of research to support ethoxyquin’s continued use in the United States. “Because there were only two uses of the chemical in the United States—for scald control in pears and as an antioxidant in pet food—EPA waived a lot of the tests because it was used so little,” Willett said.

Reregistration was approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2008.

But with limited use of ethoxyquin in Europe (DPA is used more on pears than ethoxyquin), Willett is doubtful that registrants will find it economically feasible to conduct new studies.

“It’s clear that in Europe, for those chemicals that leave a residue, the bar is set high and will continue to be set higher,” he said. “Exporting to the ­European Union is much more challenging than it used to be and will continue to be challenging. Some packers have made it work, but there’s a lot less fruit going there now than in the past.”

Willett gave his talk at the December annual meeting of the Washington State Horticultural Association.