Mixed views in the U.S. over Australian grape import protocols
For the last few weeks the Australian fruit market has been open for U.S. grape exporters under a new protocol, expanding from the previous system of methyl bromide fumigation to include the option of a six-day cold treatment. At www.freshfruitportal.com we speak with three Californian grape shippers who have varying perspectives on the new deal.
Sun World senior VP of sales and marketing Gordon Robertson is bullish about the opportunities the new protocol presents as Australia has quickly become a significant destination point for Californian grapes.
"We feel very good about the red and black grape varieties in Australia, while with green we'll be sending our Superior seedless," he tells www.freshfruitportal.com.
"Three years ago the industry was shipping around two million cartons in total but last year it was down to 700,000 cartons.
"This year we believe that with what the shippers are working on it’s looking like we’ll be going back to the historical levels, and we see a great outlet for Californian growers."
He says initial shipments started with air freight as the protocols were not in place at the start of the season.
"The reality is that the protocol didn’t get agreed upon until we were into the harvest in San Joaquin and we didn’t ship anything out of Coachella, but next year with the protocols from the start we expect to be shipping much earlier.
"Everything is done air freight at the moment as we had to start getting volumes, and we’ve got sea freight to keep things going so that our licensed marketers and customers can meet demand."
He adds the improved protocol creates a good opportunity for counterseasonal volumes that help for year-round supply of grape varieties that are licensed to Australian growers.
An 'unnecessary trade barrier'
For Jasmine Vineyards vice president Jon Zaninovich, the new protocol isn't good enough.
"The protocol means you have to invest in cold room facilities and have a lot of people monitoring, and and it means a lot of headaches; it's really an unnecessary maneuver against a pest that’s never been found on any of our inspections.
"I find it unnecessary and a trade barrier. It’s the strictest protocol we have anywhere in the world and it's not making life any easier."
Zaninovich says only a few companies have the capacity to undertake the cold treatment required under the new protocol, while it is still too early to predict volumes.
"It’s hard to tell. We’ll increase because we’ll be able to ship on the ocean and with methyl bromide that was out of the picture – it was almost entirely an air freight business before.
"Volumes are predicated how much you can put into cold treatment. I’m not a fan - it's workable but it's too restrictive.
"I don’t like methyl bromide either. Grapes aren’t even a host for the pest they’re worried about, and it’s required a lot of work between the industry, the Californian Table Grape Commission and the Australian government on an issue that is really a non-matter."
Delano Farms export director Scott Jones' thoughts echoed those of Zaninovich.
"Cold treatment is very hard on the fruit and severely limits the varieties and the amount of those varieties that we're able to ship to Australia, and it significantly raises the prices that Australians are going to have to pay."
Regardless of any criticism surrounding cold treatment, the new protocol has led Sun Pacific to make plans for Australian shipments.
Diane Ybarra, from the company's export sales division, says the company's first Thompson Seedless grapes - hopefully bound for Australia - were picked today.
"We'll get the pulp temperatures down to 31.1°F (-0.49°C) and hopefully that’ll take place as of 8am tomorrow morning, and then we’ll get the probes placed and cold treatment; that's in the best of cases and that has to remain in effect for six days," she says.
Should the fruit be approved in a pre-clearance inspection, the grapes will then be sent by air freight to Australia.
"It's [volume] going to depend on what’s best for the fruit. If there’s strength in it, there’s legs on it and we are confident about making good arrivals, then ocean is a possibility, but if we don’t ever get that confidence we will stick strictly to air.
She says the company wasn't shipping before as it doesn't use methyl bromide.
"Methyl bromide can just burn up the fruit. We’ve never done it – there are people who ship successfully with methyl bromide fumigation, but Sun Pacific have never done that, nor have we attempted to do that.
"They [Australia] had the methyl bromide fumigation requirement but they removed that, so now there’s just a six-day cold treatment that’s required and that's something we thought was worth taking a risk on."