A movement to lower the required temperature during fumigation of Argentine blueberries could bring positives to the region, according to exporters.
All blueberries being shipped to the U.S. from Argentina are required to go through fumigation to remove pests.
The berries typically are cooled immediately after harvest, but current regulations require berries to be heated to 70 degrees before the fumigation process. Then they are immediately cooled again.
This process puts the berries through stress, and can hurt quality, according to growers.
“When you raise the temp on berries, you reduce the shelf life because they get soft and weaker than they would normally,’ said Nelly Yunta, vice president of U.S. imports, customs brokerage and consulting for Miami-based Customized Brokers, a subsidiary of the Crowley Maritime Corp., Jacksonville, Fla.
Teddy Koukoulis, director of blueberry operations for Wish Farms, Plant City, Fla., agrees the process seems to have some flaws.
“You get the fruit picked, get it packed, and you’re cooling it there,” he said. “Then you take it out of the packing facility, raise the temperature, then fumigate it and then it goes back out of the chamber and into a cooling cell. All that costs money.”
Argentina is pushing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lower the temperature requirements from 70 degrees to 60 degrees.
“If we can (lower the fumigation temperature), it will have a positive impact on the quality of fruit and could impact the ability to ship via boat,” said Jim Roberts, vice president of sales for Naturipe Farms LLC.
“That would be huge for the industry, not only from a food quality standpoint, but also from a financial standpoint,” he said, referring to airfreight costs versus cheaper shipping on the oceans.
Currently, almost all blueberries are shipped by air.
“Last year there were only 10% of Argentinean blueberries arriving by boat,” said Inés Peláez, general manager for the Argentinean Blueberry Committee.
Other growers agree that lowering the temperature should have good results.
“Obviously we want to cool fruit as fast as possible off the bush, to get more shelf life. You get better quality when you can cool fruit faster,” Koukoulis said.
The USDA is reviewing a proposal to determine if the lower temperature is as effective as the current requirement.
“I’ve been told that effectiveness at 60 degrees is every bit as effective as it is at higher temperature requirements, and that’s the ultimate concern,” Roberts said.
“Argentina presented its scientific reports that a lower temperature will mitigate the risk of any pest and that’s what the USDA is analyzing now,” Yunta said.
She is optimistic the USDA will have a response ready for Argentina for this season.
“Hopefully they will agree with the program and accept the data,” she said.