Latin American Growers Fill Winter Fruit Void
Fruit from Mexico, Honduras, Chile, and Belize satisfies US customers
WASHINGTON, DC - 12/19/03 - December temperatures hover around freezing and the gloves and scarves are out. But inside supermarkets, shoppers browse aisles lined with blueberries, raspberries, clementines and grapes.
All the favorite fruits of summer will be there in the middle of winter - shipped from abroad to satisfy an American palate that now demands year-round access to what were once seasonal foods, reports the Associated Press.
Winter fruit imports, particularly from Latin America, have risen steadily for more than a decade, due in part to both growing ethnic populations and consumers' increased health consciousness. And foreign producers have complementary growing seasons.
"The market's just taking off," said Howard Friedman, an information specialist at the Produce Marketing Association, a fruit and vegetable industry trade group. "It's just people want them all year round."
Excluding bananas, fresh fruit imports rose 125% from 1992 to 2002 - 53% since 1997 - to a record 2.3 million tons last year and now account for one-fifth of the fruit consumed by Americans, according to the US Agriculture Department.
November-to-March statistics are just as telling: Fruit imports from Latin America have more than doubled in dollar terms since the winter of 1995-1996, to $1.1 billion this past winter.
Department economist Susan Pollack had trouble thinking of any common fruit that is completely missing when temperatures drop. "If you really want it, it's available," she told the AP recently.
Tara Stewart, a spokeswoman for grocery chain Harris Teeter, agreed that consumers have developed the expectation that "We want it fresh, and we want it now, and we want it to taste fresh year-round."
Improvements in transportation, storage and distribution have made the quality of fruit in the winter almost equal to fruit that reaches the shelves in warmer months. In addition, exporters tend to send out their best fruit, which can better weather a long trip.
There appears more room for growth, particularly for less common tropical fruits. New varieties have cropped up among the store regulars over the years - mangos from Mexico, papayas from Belize, dragon fruit from Honduras.
The most successful player has been Chile, with a growing season almost opposite to the United States' and now America's top supplier of foreign fruit. Chile and Mexico together accounted for nearly half of all fresh and frozen fruit imports last winter, according to the Agriculture Department.
There are worries for some American growers whose seasons sometimes overlap with Chilean grapes and Spanish clementines, but many understand the nature of global competition.
"We would all love to be a monopoly but the reality is we can't," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, which represents growers and shippers. "I think growers have adapted well to that."
Bedwell recalled the gradual disappearance from shelves of the seeded emperor grape - once popular because it held well in cold storage through the holiday season. With the arrival of grapes from abroad, American producers replaced their emperor vines with varieties more suitable for their spring-to-fall market window.
Some growers are still struggling to adapt.
Tony Fazio, who owns and operates several grape ranches throughout central California, described the situation as a double-edged sword: What's best for consumers hurts his business.
Fazio said he has drastically changed business practices over the past five years or so in response to grapes from Chile at the beginning of winter and from Mexico at the end of it. He has developed new varieties and emphasized specialty packaging.
"We just can't compete. The cost of our doing business is so much higher," Fazio said. "The long-term solution, quite frankly, I don't have right now."
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