Inconsistent quality for Chilean blueberries in previous years has created some uncertainty in the marketplace coming into this year’s deal, but suppliers emphasize improvements are in the works.
“The last few years out of Chile, fruit quality has been inconsistent, and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth for the consumer,” said Joe Barsi, director of business development at California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif.
“The industry has made strides in working together to make sure there is more quality control and quality assurance at the grower level.”
Barsi said last year the market was surprised by the high volume, and using smaller pack sizes left it ill-prepared.
Inadequate shipping space also caused delays that hurt berry shelf life.
“Last year, there was a big increase in fruit from week 49 to 52, and a lot of fruit packed up in a small sizes,” he said.
“Retail prices were high and that backed up the fruit and fruit was plugged in the supply chain. It had been sitting there for a while and was not as good.”
Mario Flores, blueberry product manager for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., agreed that the industry had to undergo a learning curve to adjust to the rapid growth of volume from new plantings maturing.
A very concentrated peak of dukes in the central valley area last year also caused logistical delays and led to poor postharvest handling, which he said must be corrected this year.
“Sometimes fruit may have to wait until the next available boat, four to five days later,” he said.
“But now, as these newer acres are coming into production, people are getting a better grasp of new production volumes, and they are getting prepared.”
This year, Barsi said an industry agreement on bigger pack sizes is a good first step. The right price at retail and good quality also will be essential for a successful deal.
Barsi added that one of the reasons why California Giant added a full-time staff person in Santiago was to help with quality control.
“We wanted to make sure our quality is consistent with our brand,” he said. “He is down there building new relationships with suppliers and overseeing quality control/ quality assurance on the ground.”
Mark Girardin, president of North Bay Produce Inc., Traverse City, Mich., said that as a grower cooperative, North Bay does not work with many third-party personnel, meaning stockholders’ primary concern is getting the best berries to market.
He also said that the berries are run through soft-sorting equipment in Chile before leaving the country of origin. Upon arrival in Miami, inspectors and staff personnel review the fruit to see if it is in good condition or if it needs to be repackaged.