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Door to China reopens for California citrus

After more than 14 months of being denied official access to the Chinese market, the California citrus industry was notified verbally the week of July 28 and in writing Monday, Aug. 4 that China was once again open for exports of California citrus.

"We are very happy the market is open," Jim Cranney, president of the California Citrus Quality Council, told The Produce News Aug. 7. "We estimate [China] to be approximately a $70 million market" and growing, with "somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million cartons of California citrus going into China annually before the market closed.

Primary varieties shipped to China are Navel oranges, lemons and Valencia oranges, according to a press release from California Citrus Mutual. "[South] Korea and Canada continue to lead in terms of cartons received, but China is gaining on both as an export destination."

Access to the market is contingent on documented adherence to strict cultural practices, "and fruit must be inspected prior to leaving shipping point," the release stated.

The reopening of the market is important for the California citrus industry "because any time you have a significant market that is closed, that fruit has to be diverted to other markets," said Cranney. "That additional supply tends to put downward pressure on the prices."

Fortunately, the adverse impact of China's closing was "maybe not as dramatic as it could have been" because the crop size was somewhat reduced by a "significant freeze" last December, right at the start of the shipping season, he said.

As the 2014-15 season approaches, the industry is hoping for more normal production, and "we are going to need every market open and available to us," Cranney said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal & Plant Heath Inspection service "did a brilliant job working on their end to communicate with their counterparts [in China] and provide them with everything they were looking for and really shepherd this whole agreement through and get it to the finish line in good shape," he said. "I think both countries really win, because our industry has an opportunity to ship into a very dynamic and important market, from an economic standpoint, and I think consumers in China are going to be very happy with the high quality citrus that is produced in California."

The market was closed around April 2013 after "China's regulatory agency, AQSIQ [General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine] had intercepted a few containers that were tested and found to have a plant disease infection called phytophthora," Cranney said.

Immediately, the California Citrus Quality Council went to work "with our plant pathologist here in California at UC-Riverside, and we put together a mitigation plan that included some grove-management practices and a post-harvest management fungicide. We worked with the Chinese authorities and with APHIS ... providing them with technical information about how this package would work, demonstrating its efficacy."

In November 2013, during an annual meeting APHIS holds with its counterparts in China, "there was an agreement to go ahead and accept this systems approach to controlling phytophthora," based on the condition that AQSIQ first do safety assessment of the post harvest fungicide, potassium phosphite. That safety assessment would involve another agency in China, the Institute for the Control of Agrochemicals, Ministry of Agriculture. But "we found out that it was going to take a long period of time, approximately two years, for ICAMA to work out the registration and approval for the use of this chemical."

Fortunately, APHIS "was able to intervene" and come to an agreement with Chinese regulators "that the grove-management practices that would be in place should be sufficient to control phytophthora infection," so the requirement for potassium phosphite postharvest treatment "was dropped from the program," he said.

In July, the California citrus industry hosted a small delegation from China that visited groves and packinghouses and met with APHIS.

'Ultimately they were confident that we would be able to implement the mitigation measures," Cranney said. "Shortly after that, we got word that the market was going to be opened."