Importers of Central American and Caribbean fruit and vegetables look forward to strong demand this winter.

Heading into December, most if not all melon shippers, regardless of where they source from, were still smarting from the listeria outbreak traced to a Colorado cantaloupe shipper in September.

But Lou Kertesz, vice president of sales for Plantation, Fla.-based Fresh Quest Inc., which imports cantaloupes, honeydews, seedless watermelon and specialty melons from Central America, is confident that markets are poised to turn.

“We’re still trying to get up after the listeria outbreak, but feel December will be a decent market,” he said.

“We should see a good holiday push.”

When heavy rains hit Central America this fall, supplies fell, prices rose, and, as a result, demand softened a bit, said Eddie Caram, general manager of Princeton, Fla.-based New Limeco LLC.

“There’s still demand for a lot of our items, but I also feel that on certain products, sales are off a little bit,” Caram said.

Southern Specialties Inc., Pompano Beach, Fla., continued to feel the effects of a rainy Guatemalan fall heading into the winter holiday season, said Charlie Eagle, the company’s vice president of business development.

“Demand has been so significant, and our supplies so finite,” he said.

“The storms forced us to cut back on some promotions.”

Supplies should return to normal in January, but Eagle expects demand to remain strong for the company’s sugar snap and snow peas, French beans, hand-peeled carrots and other Guatemalan winter items.

Mary Ostlund, director of marketing for Brooks Tropicals Inc., Homestead, Fla., also expects strong demand for Central American- and Caribbean-grown fresh fruits and vegetables over the winter months.

With a continuous stream of good nutritional news benefiting the entire produce category, it’s a case of a high tide raising all ships — including those south of the U.S. border.

“Demand should be steady, increasing over last year,” Ostlund said.

“Increasing consumer interest in produce is being driven by the year’s news stories on how important fruits and vegetables are in a healthy diet.”

Central American and Caribbean shippers also benefit, Ostlund said, from the turn of the calendar.

“When the new year dawns, people’s thoughts turn to fitness and health more than any time of the year,” she said.

“The emphasis fruits and vegetables have received in the months past should incite more produce buys.”

In the case of produce items like Brooks’s Caribbean Red papayas from Belize, it’s a question of value, not just cost, that helps drive demand, Ostlund said.

“Produce has gotten a bad rap,” she said.

“Consumers often think it’s more expensive. More expensive than what? A bag of chips? The emphasis should be ‘more bang for the nutritional buck.’”

That, she said, is where the Caribbean Red comes in.

“No fruit drives economy of scale more than Caribbean Red papayas,” she said.

“There’s a reason they’re nicknamed the bomb fruit. They’re delicious, nutritious and ready to be chopped up into a lot of eating.”