What's more American than baseball, hot dogs — and Chinese apple pie?
While Mom's homemade apple pie will grace millions of Thanksgiving dessert trays Thursday, it might not be so homemade for much longer, if China has anything to say about it.
China is the OPEC of apples, producing roughly half of the world's crop, and it is using its clout to press for expanded access to the long-restricted American market. But Beijing must first convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture that its apples are safe to eat and will not bring pesticides that could destroy crops and appetites alike.
Once that happens, U.S. growers fear, Chinese apples could flood American grocery stores and become a popular ingredient in apple pies, boasting a significant price advantage over domestically grown Granny Smiths, Winesaps and Fujis.
But many Americans are dismayed that a tradition as popular as apple pie could be outsourced to China.
Peggy Rayner, who lives in northern Maine, said she and her husband enjoy a good homemade apple pie every now and then.
"But if I couldn't find apples that were grown in the USA, I would not be making apple pie at all," Mrs. Rayner said. "I want to support our country, and I am opposed to everything that is coming in from China. I would much rather buy homegrown apples. I think buying local is very important for our economy."
Favoring 'buying local'
This sentiment of "buying local" is growing popular across the country.
The proprietors of Dangerously Delicious Pies say apple pie is one of the shop's most popular pies and the store's Baltimore location sells about 200 slices a week. But don't expect to find any Chinese apples in their pies.
"We use all local produce from local farms in our pies," said Mary Wortman, owner of the Baltimore shop. "That's one of the things that Dangerously Delicious Pies does — we pride ourselves on using local produce to help out the community."
But one concern for many Americans is that they don't always know where their food comes from. It doesn't stop with apples. China is also the world's leading producer of potatoes and green beans — meaning other popular Thanksgiving dishes like mashed potatoes and green bean casserole could soon also be imported from across the Pacific.
Many analysts believe it is only a matter of time before China gains a foothold in the American apple market. The bright side is such a move would almost certainly open the door to American apple exports in China, as well. Facing a bumper harvest this year, Pacific Northwest growers have been eyeing China's 1 billion-plus consumer market with longing. But at what cost?
"Access to the U.S. market has been a top priority for China," said Mark Seetin, director of regulatory and industry affairs at the U.S. Apple Association, an industry trade group.
China produces nearly 10 times as many apples as American farmers, so it would have much more to gain from opening the U.S. market, where 80 percent of the country's apples come from Washington state.
Apple juice was a start
In the 1990s, China was granted the right to begin exporting apple juice concentrate to the U.S. Now it dominates the apple juice market here.
"The U.S. apple industry is gravely concerned about China's potential entry into the U.S. market based on the apple industry's experience with imports of apple juice concentrate, which has significantly diminished the market for juice apples," the U.S. Apple Association said in a statement.
But farming isn't the only U.S. industry in which China has asserted its dominance.
China is a big player in manufacturing — consumers find "made in China" labels all around the world — and now it could be coming for U.S. farmers. Critics say that China can produce apples so cheaply that such a move would put so much downward pressure on the price of U.S. apples that they could fall below the cost of production and push many apple growers out of business. Pickers in China typically get less than $1 hour, compared to 10 times that or more for American orchard workers.
"China's entry into the U.S. market could cause depressed apple prices, which would force a significant number of apple growers and marketers into bankruptcy," the U.S. Apple Association warns.
But others believe that U.S. apple growers would benefit from the opportunity to sell in China, where demand for apples is growing. Farmers in Washington state are finding fewer places to sell their apples, even as they grow more apples than in the past. This is also problematic for smaller apple farmers in other parts of the country that have more competition from Washington state growers. If China were open to U.S. apple exports, the piece of the pie would be bigger for everyone.
Movement in talks
The debate has been dragging on for years, but there is some indication that negotiations are moving forward.
Chinese officials are actively negotiating about the entrance of their apples into the U.S. market with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service at the Department of Agriculture. In return, China would open its own borders to more U.S. apple producers.
"The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and our counterparts in China are working closely towards normalizing trade in apples," Workabeba Yigzaw, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, said in a statement. "We look forward to enhancing our bilateral trade relationship and continuing our work toward this mutually beneficial goal with China.
"Strong agricultural exports contribute to a positive U.S. trade balance, create jobs, boost economic growth and support President Obama's National Export Initiative goal of doubling all U.S. exports by the end of 2014," she added.
Currently, only Red and Golden Delicious apples are allowed in China, because Beijing officials in August 2012 banned most other American apple brands after a bad shipment they say was filled with "postharvest diseases." Washington typically shipped about 500,000 boxes of apples annually into China before the ban.
But some trade analysts say the health finding was just China's way of retaliating against the U.S. for not allowing it to sell apples here.
Apples were squarely on the agenda for a trade mission headed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month to Japan and China, according to Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, who participated in the trip.
"We had very successful meetings with importers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou asking when Washington apples will be back in," Mr. Fryhover told the Salem (Ore.) Capital Press earlier this week
On the other hand, there is a greater concern that Chinese apples could bring damaging pests and diseases to the U.S., which could destroy crops and would be unhealthy for consumers to eat.
U.S. officials are concerned, because China has a record of exporting dangerous pests and diseases to other countries.
The Agriculture Department shared a list of 67 pests "of concern" with Chinese officials, but China has been slow agree to reforms that would rid their apples of pests to the satisfaction of the U.S.
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