Passport to produce

Consumers are spicing and sweetening up their meals year-round, thanks to produce grown abroad.

Thanksgiving is one of the only U.S. holidays in which the centerpiece consists of a meal built on a national tradition. Consumers may not always agree on dinner options for other major holidays, but Thanksgiving was founded on gathering around a roasted turkey, mashed potatoes and root vegetables. This November retailers will, as always, be selling out of these staple ingredients. mayansweets

What they will also be selling is hot peppers, fresh berries and tropical fruits, among other things, that consumers will add to their family recipes to spice up their mashed potatoes or decorate their fruit pies. Not only are these flavors not in-season in autumn in the U.S., many are not indigenous to the country.

This November, consumers have produce importers to thank.

Produce grown overseas is not new to supermarkets shelves, but with creative recipes and at-home cooking and entertaining on trend, consumers are looking at “seasonal” fruits and vegetables from a new perspective. Take sweet onions, for instance; recently this “winter food” has found its way into summer grilling, fresh salads and other summertime recipes.

“There are a lot of alternatives for a sweet onion,” says Delbert Bland, founder/owner of Glenville, Ga.-based Bland Farms. “A sweet onion can be used in all the same ways as a yellow onion. You can cook it, eat it whole, cut it up in a salad or slice it for a hamburger. Consumers have a lot more options with a sweet onion than other types of onions.”

Sweet onions are one of the most commonly imported items in the U.S. and it pays off at the bottom line to have them on display year-round, say industry observers. John Shuman, president and director of sales at Reidsville, Ga.-based Shuman Produce, says that according to Nielsen Perishables Group data, the average sweet onion consumer has a basket size roughly 40% larger than the average produce consumer.

Most shoppers do not know if the sweet onions in their cart were grown in the U.S., Peru, Mexico or Chile, but they know how to recognize quality—and quality is what is important to consumers, say observers.

“Research shows that there is no sensitivity to imported sweet onions with taste and quality as the two most important features consumers look for in a sweet onion,” adds Shuman.

Growing a quality product is hard enough at the whim of weather and nature. Growing a quality product and then transporting it to its end destination across country borders requires a lot of planning and “luck,” according to some observers.

One of the most common obstacles is effective communication across distance and cultural differences. This is one of the major focuses for Southern Specialties. The vertically integrated grower works to educate and support the communities it is involved in abroad. “That could be in the form of a formal education, supporting schools, contributing to medical expenses, providing education for workers’ families or things like supplying computers and contributing to community libraries,” says Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for the Pompano Beach, Fla.-based company.

After that, it becomes an issue of logistics—at a reasonable cost. Brian Kastick, president and general manager of Oso Sweet, based in Charleston, Va., says the industry is facing continually increasing costs of freight—both the cost of the inland freight, from the field to the port, as well as the cost of maritime freight. Then in the U.S., he adds, “we have seen dramatic increases in costs for inspections and routine stuff for government compliance. This is especially noticeable in places like L.A., New York and Philly.”

blandperuUnlike many U.S. farmers that expand their business from the inside out, the grower Oso Sweet started on the import side of the business and expanded into the U.S. market. For the last five years it has grown sweet onions in California. “We started with imports so people take us seriously,” says Kastick. “We tell retailers we have California onions and they ask us, ‘but aren’t you the Peru guys?’ It took us a couple years for people to realize that we are the real deal in the domestic market.”

Other commodities are moving in the opposite direction—leaving the country. Asparagus, for example, is almost entirely grown outside the U.S. now, say observers. It is a very expensive crop to harvest in the U.S. with regards to issues and costs surrounding labor, says Kurt Schweitzer, owner of Keystone Fruit Marketing, based in Greencastle, Pa. “It has become more cost efficient to grow asparagus in Peru or Mexico. The growing periods are also longer down there, so they can grow asparagus most of the year.”

Schweitzer says asparagus acreage in California has gone from about 12,000 to 2,000 in the past six years. “We used to grow more in the U.S. in California, but we sold the farms. Much of the land is being turned over to avocadoes, which is a growing consumer commodity,” he adds.

Story time
It is not news anymore that consumers are searching for more information about the foods they eat, and distance only makes the interest grow stronger. One of the things retailers and marketers strive to do is bridge a connection between the farmers from afar and the produce on the store shelves. This is, observers agree, key to quelling any consumer concerns.

“Recent consumer research suggests that there is a focus on ‘locale’ when it comes to produce,” says Shuman. “Consumers are interested in the story of their produce—where it is grown, how it is grown, how it is harvested and who is behind the process.

Addie Pobst, organic integrity and logistics lead at Viva Tierra agrees. “In general we have seen across the board on imports and domestic products, people like to feel that they have a connection with the people that are growing their fruit. It is not so much necessarily about where the grower is located as it is about having that human touch,” she says.

The Sedro-Woolley, Wash.-based grower/importer has information about its farmers on its website and is “happy to work with retailers to promote the growers in-store,” says Pobst.

Bridging the connection with farmers in the store can influence shoppers purchasing decisions, especially when promoting social or ethical movements, such as Fair Trade, say observers. This is one of the marketing services The Guimarra Companies, a Los Angeles-based importer of blueberries, avocadoes and asparagus, provides its retail customers. “We work with growers around the world with some amazing stores to tell, such as our growers who are Fair Trade Certified,” says Megan Schulz, marketing and communications manager. “We feel these stories can and should be told to consumers to help connect them with the people who grow, harvest and pack their food. This connection is important for the success of our Fair Trade programs, especially.”

Up for discussion
The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011  is still in the process of getting its act together, but there are a couple elements of the legislation that has the produce industry talking—especially those that import. The two proposed rules according to the FDA are summarized below.

The Accreditation of Third-Party Auditors would “establish a program to conduct food safety audits and issue certifications of foreign facilities and the foods for humans and animals they produce.”

The Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) would strengthen the oversight of foods imported for U.S. consumers, requiring importers to “perform certain risk-based activities to verify that food imported into the U.S. has been produced in a manner that provides the same level of public health protection as that required of domestic food producers.”

Dr. Jim Gorny, Produce Marketing Association’s (PMA) vice president of food safety and technology, offered public commentary on behalf of PMA. According to Gorny, the industry has great expectations for the FSVP proposed rule, and a more preventive approach to import produce safety would significantly reduce the frequency of product testing at the border, which can cause significant economic losses of perishable commodities.

“It is incredibly important to the fresh produce industry because it provides the opportunity for FDA to shift from relying heavily on import surveillance and product testing at the port entry, to a preventive approach of assuring the safety of imported produce,” he says.


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