The surprise affecting the Californian citrus industry in the wake of a Chinese ban seems all too familiar for Jim Archer, who manages nonprofit Northwest Fruit Exporters (NFE). Washington apple shippers have been unable to send their fruit to the Middle Kingdom since August last year due to postharvest disease concerns cited by authorities, following what Archer describes as a "perfectly clean year". He tells www.freshfruitportal.com about lengthy lag times between interceptions and notifications, and the new demands placed by China's General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ).
Archer says the issue began in 2008 with reports of diseases in Washington shipments, with suspensions for individual packers over time.
"In some cases they [packers] were reinstated but in some cases it was the better part of two crop years or a full crop year, and there was never any particular event that we're aware of that caused reinstatement," he says.
"In each case we cooperate with APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) to investigate and trace back those lots as best we can, and determine whether or not there was a problem with a shipment.
"In every case we've never been able to find any problem with a shipment; there's often quite a lag time before it’s reported, and quite often the detail that we need to trace the lots isn’t present either."
He says there is no explanation as to why there were delays of several months between interceptions and notifications to APHIS.
"It's an odd situation because I talked with the exporters and the packers, and they're never aware of any rejections. Not only that, everyone gets paid for the fruit."
He highlights the state was once shipping 800,000 cartons of apples annually to China but these quarantine troubles cut that in half, and down to zero since the total suspension which he believes is related to China's desire to gain U.S. access for its apples.
"China should be a growth market, an expanding market, and of course it's quite the opposite."
The official culprits behind this debacle are the diseases Phacidiopycnis washingtonensis and Sphaeropsis pyriputrescens, which were reported in a March 2012 inspection.
Archer says the apples concerned must have been from the 2010 crop as the phytosanitary certificates were issued in mid-August 2011, and the only apples allowed into China - Red and Golden Delicious - are harvested in September.
"So we hadn’t had any detection for the last crop year, yet the Chinese suspended the entire industry in Washington State in August 2012 and we'd had a perfectly clean year. It doesn’t make a lot of sense."
In response, the industry sponsored a visit for the Chinese government in December last year, with a pathologist and assistant who were taken to several warehouses and orchards.
"They went home, wrote a report, and then the Chinese quarantine agency wrote up a list of supplemental requirements for us to agree to, and some of those were in our estimation very unreasonable and unmanageable, and perhaps ineffective.
"We could not agree to it but we made some modifications, retained as much as we could of their language and responded on March 6, and we’re still waiting on a reaction from AQSIQ."
Archer has no idea "when or if" AQSIQ will respond. The industry contends with several Chinese proposals, including mandatory pre-harvest fungicides without any clear schedule, orchard monitoring throughout the season and "picking up fallen twigs and leaves from the orchard floor".
"There could be something lost in translation when you talk about picking up leaves from the orchard, but nonetheless that’s what it stated."
A key requirement Archer describes as "ineffective" is a protocol of incubating 300 apples sampled from each grower lot for 20 days prior to shipment, accompanied by disease tests prior to shipment.
"They also had requirements like removing the fruits from the pollinizer tree, pruning all the pollinizer trees, which is not all that unreasonable but some of the other requirements were."