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'I Regret That.' Governor Sorry For Apple Gift Mistake; Agent Tracks Down Maggot-Laden Fruit

Washington Dept. of Agriculture
Signs along highways throughout Washington mark where apple maggot quarantine areas begin. It is illegal to transport home-grown tree fruit into these areas, largely from western Washington into the state's apple-growing eastern counties.

Correction, Sept. 18, 2020: A word to describe the amount of apples brought by Gov. Jay Inslee has been changed in this story to better reflect the amount of apples. The word "box" is now used instead of "bin." A "bin" of apples is a more technical industry term that is much larger than the actual number of apples in question.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s well-intentioned gesture of western Washington apples sent a detective hunting down the fruit in three counties this week.

The apples from the executive residence in Olympia were intended for eastern Washington residents who had lost their homes in fires. But the fruit was infected with maggot larvae.

In Washington, bringing a home-grown apple from west to east is a misdemeanor. There are road signs and posters. The penalty can cost 90 days in jail. But the Washington Department of Agriculture has never enforced the law. Sources at the department say it’s more about education.

Betsy Beers is a professor of entomology at Washington State University in Wenatchee. She says apple maggots are dangerous pests because they feed directly on the fruit.

“It burrows through the fruit and leaves sort of a brown, yucky mess,” Beers said.

KUOW previously reported on the initial apple investigation and that some residents of Bridgeport were not happy about the governor’s post-fire visit.

Credit Washington Dept. of Agriculture
Tree fruit from most of western Washington, and Spokane County in eastern Washington, is banned from transport into and through eastern Washington counties due to the potential for apple maggot spread in the state's apple-growing region.

Apple Detective

By Monday Will Carpenter was searching for the accidental Trojan horse fruit. Carpenter is the chief agent with the Chelan-Douglas County Horticultural Pest and Disease Board.

“This is the most significant case I’ve seen in seven years,” Carpenter said. “And that’s how long I’ve been with the department.”

Carpenter says the governor pretty much broke records for the quantity of infected fruit he brought into quarantine counties – more than a box full. And the mistake could have had big economic impacts for apple growers in Washington state.

“And the pest is so bad that if we were to become quarantined in any of our counties, that our growers wouldn't be able to ship to certain export markets,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter says he was able to track down 37 apples in Bridgeport, seven in Omak and some fruit in Malden. He says every apple he cut open was infested with apple maggots. 

“We’re missing maybe two apples,” Carpenter told the Northwest News Network Thursday afternoon. “One a kid had eaten onsite on Saturday and two that were cut open for a photo op for social media.”

Throwing away the apples doesn’t fix the problem. The larvae can survive and turn into a fly for the next year. The apples have to be cooked to kill the larvae. 

In a press conference Thursday, Inslee said he was sorry for the apple mistake.

“I was thinking about the people who lost their homes, and we went too fast,” he said. “And I regret that.”

Inslee said that he and his wife would make donations to food banks in the affected areas. Though presumably the donations won’t be of home-grown apples from western Washington.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.