As agriculture leaders from China and the U.S. met to discuss trade issues, Washington apple industry leaders were expressing concern about new measures that might limit U.S. apple exports to the world’s most populous country.

The annual meeting between plant health officials of China and the U.S. was Sept. 26-27 in Napa, Calif., said Mark Powers, vice president of international trade and transportation for the Northwest Horticultural Council, Yakima, Wash. Those discussions were expected to cover U.S.-China agricultural trade relations, including China’s interest in exporting apples to the U.S. and U.S. concerns about China’s import policies.

Chris Scott, Washington Apple Commission export representative, said Sept. 26 he recently returned from Hong Kong and said reports from traders there indicate import permits in mainland China have not been issued for U.S. apples since August. Hong Kong remains open to U.S. apple imports, he said.

China takes only red and golden delicious apples, whereas other apple varieties enter China unofficially through Hong Kong.

“Importers in Hong Kong aren’t too worried, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with importers in China yet,” Scott said Sept. 26.

Fred Scarlett, assistant manger of Northwest Fruit Exporters, Yakima, Wash., said he has not heard any feedback from Washington exporters nor have they received official knowledge that import permits are not being issued.

“What we have been told is that import permits that have been issued will continue to be honored,” Scarlett said. “If there is truly a stoppage of imports of apples, we would have heard from the industry,” he said.

The 2012 marketing season is just beginning, but new crop apples won’t go to China for several weeks. Phytosanitary requirements dictate that apple exports to China must undergo cold treatment of 40 or 90 days, depending on the parameters of treatment option.

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that exports of fresh apples to China totaled $4 million from January through July, down 22% from the same period a year ago. The volume of exports to China totaled 2,966 metric tons, off 36% from the same period a year ago.

USDA statistics show that Hong Kong is the fifth most important export destination for U.S. apples, behind Mexico, Canada, India and Taiwan. China is No, 21 on the list of U.S. apple importers for 2012.

Dan Kelly, assistant manager with the Wenatchee-based Washington Growers Clearing House, said Washington exports to China during the 2011-12 season (through September) totaled 408,000 cartons, off from 784,000 cartons the same time a year ago. Exports to Hong Kong were 2.1 million cartons so far in the 2011-12 season, just below the 2.2 million for the previous season.