Fumigation requirements placed on Argentina blueberries bound for the U.S. present one of the toughest hurdles for Argentina’s industry, suppliers in the U.S. say.
“The problem in Argentina right now is you have to either fumigate it or cold-treat it,” said Brian Bocock, vice president of product management for the Grand Junction, Mich., office of Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla.
Most growers choose the fumigation option, but with that comes higher transportation costs, Bocock said.
“The deal with that is, you absolutely have to fly it,” he said.
Dave Bowe, owner of Dave’s Specialty Imports Inc., Coral Spring, Fla., said it costs Argentina blueberry shippers $5 per case to do that.
“Tough to make a profit with that kind of cost,” he said.
Bocock pointed out that most Argentina shippers are, more or less, forced into shipping their product by air because of the requirements.
“They will not take a boat ride for 17 days after they fumigate it,” Bocock said.
Chilean shippers, by contrast, aren’t under the same restrictions, he added.
“In Chile, they don’t have to fumigate, nor do they have to have a cold treatment, unless they find some sort of pest down there that needs to be eradicated before it comes to the U.S.,” he said.
“As such, they could put it on a boat and bring it up here and you’ve got a really good shelf life, as long as you don’t break the cold chain.”
What that means is 21 days of shelf life on a blueberry, as long as the cold chain isn’t broken, Bocock said.
“Where they’ve been successful is, it’s only 14 days to Miami, 16 days to Philly and 15 days to L.A., and you can get it moved out and give retailers three, four, five days easy to sell it through his system,” he said.
Cold treatment can carry some risks, aside from taking more time, Bocock said.
“The bottom line is, it takes a pretty substantial amount of time and, frankly, as a general statement across the entire landscape, it won’t hold up long enough for that to work,” he said.
“Will some of the product hold up? Yes. But when you’re already working on tight margins, you can’t take the risk of a significant percentage of your product not holding up and getting, frankly, very poor returns and poor quality.”
What is the solution for Argentina’s blueberry growers and shippers?
“What it needs is, first off, in Argentina, they need a lower cost of production and logistics to get it to the U.S.,” he said.
“Their cost per pound or kilo is too high. That can be addressed through a number of different things.”
One, he said, is improved logistics, to reduce costs getting the product to U.S. ports. The second possible solution is to increase per-acre yields.
Air freight isn’t a complete disadvantage, however, said Janice Honigberg, president of Sun Belle Inc., Washington, D.C.
“The disadvantage is it’s probably limited the desire to ship by boat, which, of course, means that most rely on air freight, which means higher cost,” she said.
“On the other hand, it means that the product is in fresher condition, which is a good thing.”
Shelf life is a big consideration, she added.
“There are shippers who bring product from Argentina by boat, but it’s three weeks on the water and, by the time the volume starts, you’ll have some overlap with Chile,” she said.
Most of Chile’s product has traditionally arrived by boat, but last year, that changed a bit, Honigberg said.
“Last year, more of Chile’s berries were air-freighted,” she said.
How product is shipped often is determined by the elements, Honigberg said.
“There was a time in February where there was frequent rain and we felt a lot of fruit wouldn’t be in good condition on the shelf,” she said.
“We opted to go almost 100% air, and we were one of the only one who was air-freighting. When others sent by boat, it wasn’t in very good condition, and they had to get low prices. We had already sold ours.
“It’s not a good idea to assume that all Chilean blueberries are adequate for boat shipping every week.”
Why is Argentina under requirements that don’t apply to Chile?
Geography, said Bruce Turner, head of operations with Giumarra VBM International Berry LLC in Vernon, Calif.
“They’re separated by 17,000-foot mountains, and the pest risk is different in Chile versus Argentina,” Turner said.
“It’s dramatically different. There’s not a trade issue. It’s strictly the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors) doing their job.”