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Japan Opens Door Wider for American Apples

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UNITED States apple growers are finally poised to take a bite out of the Japanese market.

After 22 years of dashing US hopes, the Japanese government appears to have changed its protectionist stance. Last week Mickey Kantor, the White House trade representative, said Japan had agreed to ``move expeditiously'' to allow apples harvested next year to enter Japan in the winter of 1995.

The US Agriculture Department predicts first-year sales to Japan of about $15 million, reaching $75 million after five years. ``Right now it sounds good in the newspaper,'' says Mike Saunders, owner of Northwestern Fruit and Produce Company, based here in the central Washington apple heartland near Yakima. But, he cautions, ``we've heard this before.''

In 1971, Japan ostensibly opened its market to imports. ``But not a single apple from anywhere outside Japan has ever made it in,'' says Jim Thomas, spokesman for the Washington State Apple Commission.

Despite the state's clean track record on pest infestation, Tokyo's rules ``kept changing'' and orchard inspections were not done, he says. The recent agreement is viewed by growers as a breakthrough since it is Japan's first written pledge to settle on standards and make the needed inspections.

``I'm quite optimistic.... I think we've got a commitment,'' says Tom Mathison, chairman of the Northwest Fruit Exporters, a leader in the push to export apples to Japan. Earlier this year, Japan struck a similar deal with New Zealand, which has a different growing season from both Japan and the US.

Observers here cite several factors behind the accord: mounting Japanese media pressure in recent months, the free-trade bent of new Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, and urgings from US congressional leaders and Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy.

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