Washington and Oregon apple growers won a 20-year trade battle yesterday when the World Trade Organization ruled Japan's import barriers...

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Washington and Oregon apple growers won a 20-year trade battle yesterday when the World Trade Organization ruled Japan’s import barriers to U.S. apples are illegal.

The decision requires Japan to admit U.S. apples, a potential market estimated at $143.4 million a year, or face U.S. trade sanctions.

The decision is expected to help open markets in other countries with similar restrictions, and mainly benefits growers in the Pacific Northwest.

“If the Japanese want, they could implement this rather quickly,” said Bill Bryant, chairman of Seattle consulting firm Bryant Christie, who has worked on the issue since 1985.

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Washington state alone accounts for 90 percent of U.S. apple exports. The state’s crop was worth $1.1 billion in 2003, the latest figure available, according to the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima.

In the trade case, Japan claimed importing U.S. apples would expose its orchards to fire blight, a bacterial disease endemic in the United States.

But a WTO panel found Japan’s import requirements for U.S. apples lacked scientific backing, and were too restrictive on trade. Japan required U.S. apples to come from orchards with 500-yard buffer zones on all sides and three inspections a year.

“For a small grower, that’s on someone else’s property,” said Rodney Roberts, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in Wenatchee.

Years of field research by Roberts helped show that mature apples without fire-blight symptoms had little risk of transmitting the disease. “The risk is so small that it approaches zero,” Roberts said.

Based, in part, on Roberts’ research, the WTO in December 2003 found Japan’s apple restrictions violated international trade agreements. Japan changed its rules a year ago, narrowing the buffer zone to 10 yards and requiring only one inspection. But the United States claimed Japan was still acting illegally and went back to the WTO.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman called yesterday’s decision a “solid victory for the U.S. apple industry.”

It remained unclear whether this fall’s crop would reach Japan. Makiko Oshima, a Japanese trade official, said, “We are still thinking about how now to proceed.”

The WTO decision could open up U.S. exports to Australia, South Africa and China, for certain varieties of apples, which are now restricted because of fire-blight concerns, said Mike Willett, vice president for scientific affairs at the Northwest Horticultural Council.

“Now we know that the WTO has ruled that that reason isn’t valid,” Willett said.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report. Alwyn Scott 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com