After 20 Years of Negotiations, American Apples Arrive in China

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Wholesale buyers checking out pallets of imported fruit Photo credit: Fiona Reilly.

Wholesale buyers checking out pallets of imported fruit (Photo credit: Fiona Reilly)

Walking along the streets of urban China, fruit stands are all over the place. At almost every corner, you’ll find small stands with neatly piled mounds of fruit displayed under bright lights. The stands are open from early morning until the late evening hours and they might look modest, but they sell fruit from all around the world. Handwritten signs tell the price per kilo and source of each fruit in stock. Southeast Asian fruits like durian and rambutan are nestled next to American apples and South African lemons.

Getting those fruits to China is not easy. Many fruits will be packed into air-conditioned shipping containers and loaded onto ships crossing the Pacific. Others are loaded onto planes. The first stop on Chinese soil is at a wholesale fruit market, like the one I visited far on the outskirts of Shanghai.

It’s exciting to see the different fruits and the colorful labels on their crates. Every season brings in new varieties and fruits from all around the world. This season it’s American apples from Washington State that are new in the market. China and the US signed a trade agreement earlier this year 20 years in the making allowing all varieties of US apples to enter China (and Chinese apples into the US in return).

Fruits from around the world for sale. Photo credit: Fiona Reilly.
Fruits from around the world for sale. Photo credit: Fiona Reilly.

The place doesn’t look fancy. It’s dark and the ground is scattered with remains of rotting fruit. Occasionally you catch an overpowering whiff of durian or Valencia oranges.  You’d never guess that thousands in dollars of deals are being brokered by the importers and wholesale buyers gathered around in the early morning hours.

A blast of air-conditioned cool air rushes out as the shipping container doors are cracked open. The importer pulls a crate of fruit down off the tall pallets of fruit inside and opens it up for the buyers to inspect, urging them loudly to make an order fast.  The buyers crowd in, some with flashlights, picking up and examining the fruit, looking for bruises and checking the coloring. Occasionally a buyer will taste the fruit. Almost immediately the bidding begins. The importers take orders, writing down a buyer’s name on the pallets they’ve reserved. The exchange of money will take place later when things have calmed down.

The Shanghai Wholesale Fruit Market. Photo credit: Fiona Reilly.
The Shanghai Wholesale Fruit Market. Photo credit: Fiona Reilly.

Washington State apples compete with local Chinese apples at the market, but although China is the biggest producer of apples in the world, almost all of them are of one kind: Fuji. The apple trade deal means that all American apple varieties are allowed into China. Before the agreement, American apples were smuggled into China by way of Hong Kong.  Just two varieties, Red and Golden Delicious, were allowed in. But even though all varieties are now allowed in, the verdict is still out on whether Chinese shoppers can be convinced to buy them instead of cheaper Chinese apples.

Washington Apple Commission representative Victor Wang thinks that China could become Washington State apples’ biggest export market after Canada. It’s still too early to tell though. Growers will have to wait to see whether shoppers will like the new varieties. December to February is the peak buying season at the market as shoppers buy imported apples to give as gifts for Christmas and Chinese New Year.

Rebecca Kanthor is a freelance writer and producer for print, tv and radio. She is the Shanghai-based correspondent for industry publication Plastics News. 

This story was produced with support from the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship.