A decades-long battle ended Thursday when almost 1,000 tons of Washington apples arrived in Japan.
The apples are the first from the United States headed for Japanese customers. The government decided in August to allow U.S. imports.
The Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples could go on sale as soon as Tuesday after a final quarantine, said executives of Daiei, Japan’s largest supermarket chain and one of 14 companies that will sell them.
Brent Evans, Asia marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission, said that the commission will try to assure Japanese consumers that Washington apples are safe to eat while making them widely available.
“We’ve structured this opening so all these apples come in at once,” Evans said. “Anybody that wants to can buy Washington apples.”
Japanese growers say U.S. apple imports will put them out of business by flooding the market with cheap, pestladen fruit - an argument Japan’s powerful farm lobbies have used for decades to help keep foreign produce out of the country.
Strict quarantining requirements and a costly, inefficient distribution system also helped close the market. In 1971, Tokyo opened its apple market to imports but banned apples from the United States, claiming U.S. apples could introduce fireblight, a plant disease.
U.S. growers say the ban cost them at least $150 million a year in lost business. But other potential exporters fared little better. The first imports under the 1971 market opening didn’t arrive until last summer, when a shipment of apples arrived from New Zealand.
A group of Japanese growers is suing the national government for lifting the ban on U.S. apples, claiming the decision introduces the danger of fireblight.
But the imports were allowed on the condition that American growers follow the most restrictive export safety procedures in the world, according to Jim Archer of the Northwest Fruit Exporters.
Japanese inspectors went to Washington state and approved only about 1,200 acres of the most pristine orchards that were nowhere near any fireblight, he said.
Retail prices were not announced by late Thursday.
Japanese officials have predicted Washington state apples could sell for 20 percent to 30 percent less than local varieties, and that has domestic growers worried.
The growers, who produce about 1 million tons of apples a year, work small family-run plots where each fruit is often individually groomed and wrapped on the tree to ensure a large gourmet apple with even color, high sugar content and high price. A gourmet apple typically costs $6.
A bargain bag of six apples commonly sells for $5.
Archer said he expected about 16,800 tons of exports this year, more than 1 percent of the apples consumed in Japan in a typical year.
The first shipments were being unloaded Thursday at three ports.
A smaller shipment arrived Dec. 12 for inspectors and stores to examine.
The apple commission has arranged for a group of U.S. journalists to be in Japan next week to watch how consumers respond.
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