US fruit exporters hit with extra Chinese customs checks as trade dispute takes its toll

American producers who have already been hit by tariffs face further problems as shipments face longer delays at major Chinese ports

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2018, 10:46pm

China’s major ports have stepped up checks on fresh fruit imports from the United States, five Chinese industry sources said, which could delay shipments from American growers already dealing with higher tariffs as trade ties worsen.

Since last week, Beijing has dispatched quarantine experts to major ports, including Shanghai and Shenzhen, to make more thorough on-site checks for disease and rot, a source based in Shanghai revealed.

“China has resumed the practice of inspecting every batch of US fresh fruit,” the source said, adding that inspectors had previously checked only around 30 per cent of shipments. 

China had dialled back the checks in November 2017 but, since Monday, all fruit shipments that originated from the US have been subject to up to seven days of quarantine checks on arrival in Shenzhen, said another industry source based at the port in China’s south.

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Previously, customs officers in China had let shipments through while they conducted sample checks.

Several containers of oranges imported by the Shenzhen source’s company from the US have been intercepted this week, he added.

Also several batches of apples have failed quarantine inspections and will be returned to the United States, the Shanghai source said.

China’s customs office could not be immediately reached for comment.

Fruit was among 128 US goods that China slapped with more expensive import tariffs in retaliation for levies on Chinese steel and aluminium as trade tensions between the world’s two biggest economies flared this year.

Washington-based Chelan Fresh sales manager Bryan Peebles said he had heard of some shipment hold-ups, but that his export business, which includes apples and cherries, was not affected in recent weeks.

“There has been news of detaining fruits – citrus and a little bit of apples,” he said, adding that exporters will get a better handle on any heightened scrutiny when the year’s first California cherry exports arrive in China this week.

The US sold US$18 million of fresh apples to China in 2017 out of US$872 million in total exports, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The more thorough inspections came as the cherry season on the US West Coast kicked off. Shipments from Washington state typically begin in June.

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“We’re crossing our fingers and toes that everything will get worked out in the next month. China’s a big market for us,” said Randy Eckert, export sales manager for Washington-based Yakima Fresh LLC.

If the measures remain in place, he fears a “domino effect” of cancelled orders by China and a rush by US cherry growers to resell the perishable produce domestically or to other importers such as Canada.

Likely days-long delays during the height of cherry shipping season this summer will raise the risk of spoilage at ports of entry, said Keith Hu, director of international operations for the industry group Northwest Cherry Growers.

“During the peak of our season, there is no way that they will have enough refrigerated storage for our cherries. The chances that our cherries will be destroyed under the sun is far greater,” he said. “We’re looking at alternative markets.”

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China is the third-largest export market for fresh cherries from the US. Exporters shipped US$119 million of fresh cherries to China, just under a third of total shipments worth US$605 million, in 2017.

A US trade delegation led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is in Beijing for talks with Chinese officials. The two sides are expected to discuss an array of American complaints about China’s trade practices, from accusations of forced technology transfers to state subsidies for technology development.

Fruit has previously been a casualty of bilateral trade spats. Several years ago, China banned some imports of Philippine fruit as bilateral ties deteriorated over a maritime territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

One Chinese online retailer that imports and sells US cherries has suspended plans to promote American fruit, a source at the company said.