(Jan. 3) Italian produce importer Paganini Foods LLC, which ships under the Bella Vita brand, is expanding its presence in the U.S., hoping to garner more support for European produce nationwide.

Swedesboro, N.J.-based Paganini Foods is anticipating a 40% growth in its kiwifruit, orange and grape imports and a possible 60% increase in lemon shipments in 2008, said Celso Paganini, president and chief executive officer.

During its 2006-07 season, Paganini shipped 100 containers of kiwis, which traditionally are available through early May; 100 containers of Sicilian red oranges, which typically begin in late January and run through early June; 30 to 40 containers of lemons, which should start in late January and wrap up in July or August; and grapes, which usually begin in Aug. 15 and end in late December, Paganini said.

“We are expecting a particularly good winter for lemons in the U.S., given the freeze in 2007,” Paganini said.

As part of its 2008 retail expansion, Paganini has added a few big-box stores in North America to a customer list that already has several large retail chains throughout the U.S., said Paganini, who declined to name the stores.

Paganini Foods offers retail customers a promotional program called Mediterranean Pleasures, which consists of point-of-sale materials, including signage to educate consumers on differences between European and U.S. produce, funding for print, radio and TV advertising and trips to Italian growing areas for select industry members.

Paganini said the promotion is sponsored by the Bella Vita farming consortium, which Paganini Foods represents, the European Commission and AGEA, the Italian agency in charge of agricultural disbursements.

Paganini Foods plans to gain national exposure through a TV ad that will run on NBC, ABC or MSNBC in March, he said.

The Bella Vita brand previously appeared on television in 2006, when it was featured multiple times on “Produce Pete” Napolitano’s show, which airs in New York and Philadelphia. The company also ran an ad during the 2006 Columbus Day Parade on NBC, Paganini said.

One aspect Paganini wants to tout is the fact that Italy is one of the largest producers in the world, based on the country’s population and the volumes grown there, he said.

“We want to communicate the Italian region — it’s very unique, in produce especially,” he said.

The promotional program, which has a 3.4 million euro budget, began in July 2006, and is projected to wrap up in July 2008, and so far, the company has seen a 10-fold sales spike in oranges and three-fold jump in kiwis, Paganini said.

The firm also owns 60% of the U.S. market share for the tarocco varietal of Sicilian red oranges — in addition to the moro and sanguinello Sicilian reds its imports — and represents 30% of Italian kiwis shipped to the U.S., which translates to around 9 million pounds annually, he said.