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Apple exporters are optimistic about shipping to an Australia market open after 90 years but some early failures last year are a reality check on the rules, according to a NZ Herald report.

The report, quoting Pipfruit NZ chief executive Peter Beaven, said that apple harvest was due to get underway next month with an expectation for tens of thousands of cases to be shipped to Australia this year and a longer-term market opportunity for about 500,000 cases.

The Australian market could be worth NZ$30 million or more to New Zealand growers in a few years, representing about 3 to 5 per cent of production, Beaven was quoted saying.

A ban on New Zealand apple imports had been in place since 1921 because of fire blight, with apple leaf curling midge and European canker added later, but was lifted last year following the settling of a case in New Zealand’s favour the previous year at the World Trade Organisation.

There had been some small shipments last year but three had failed Australian biosecurity rules – one for apple leaf curling midge, one for the midge and trash contamination and another for trash, according to the report.

The midge was by and large not regarded as a pest in New Zealand because it stunted some growth that was unwanted and had to be pruned out, but it was an actionable pest for some markets including Australia.

Beaven was concerned about the issue of trash, which included leaf litter responsible in two of the rejections.

“One of the lots that failed had a piece of broken leaf 6mm by 2mm,” he said. “That’s half the size of your little fingernail and it’s ludicrous to suggest that a piece of leaf that size could represent a phytosanitary risk to Australia.”

The industry had not been able to get leaf litter removed as a reason to reject shipments and would have to take extreme care in packing this year, Beaven said.

“I think there is a genuine belief among some Australian growers that allowing trade in New Zealand apples will cause them to get fire blight, despite the fact that all of the science says the opposite.”

New Zealand had shipped billions of apples to Taiwan, which remained free of fire blight, he said.

“I think everybody’s had a reality check on how difficult the work plan actually is to get fruit through.”

Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry manager of plant imports and exports Stephen Butcher said the Australian requirements were clear.

“MAF is working with the pipfruit industry to ensure orchardists and packhouses can consistently meet the import requirements through the compliance programme for apples being sent to Australia.”

Exports accounted for about 16.9 million cases of apples and pears last season, with apples making up about 98.5 per cent.

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