( Photo courtesy Heather Gill; Source Unsplash; Graphic by Brooke Park )

Mango suppliers say they’re not taking any chances with the new coronavirus COVID-19, which burst across the U.S. in March and likely won’t let go anytime soon.

The pandemic, which by April 13 had claimed more than 22,000 lives in the U.S. and brought much of the national economy to a standstill by April 4, had a “whiplash” effect on mango sales in its early stages, said Clark Golden, partner with Vineland, N.J.-based mango distributor Amazon Produce.

“We’re having a bit of whiplash, with people panic-buying and then pulling back,” he said in early April. “I don’t see it as a long-term issue.”

The COVID-19 crisis has hit foodservice with full force, as state and local governments have ordered “non-essential” businesses shuttered for the duration of the pandemic.

“There is a small part of our business that is foodservice, and those guys have just gotten destroyed,” Golden said.

Meanwhile, Amazon Produce and all its allied facilities were not taking any chances and were taking all available precautions, Golden said.

“They’re doing a lot,” he said. “They’re taking everybody’s temperature at the door. Everybody is wearing masks, doing social distancing as much as we can.”

The pandemic caused disruptions on both supply and demand sides of the business at Miami-based Ecoripe Tropicals, said Marc Holbik, vice president of business development.

“It is a challenge to create a safe working environment due to COVID-19 at farms, packing plants, distribution centers and grocery stores, and this is being reflected in the volatility and unpredictability in the marketplace,” he said.

Related content: Big mango crop on tap, despite some weather issues

Not just a foodservice problem

The interruption in foodservice channels was affecting the mango market at large, said Gary Clevenger, managing member and co-founder of Oxnard, Calif.-based grower-shipper Freska Produce International LLC.

“The mango market started out strong and good; now the market has slowed due to foodservice being non-existent and the COVID-19 uncertainty,” he said. 

“Shoppers seems to be sticking to the food staples of potatoes, onions, and veg. We’re aggressively trying to promote ads in hopes of getting fruit to retail.” Others reported sales decreases.

“Since the second week of March, we have been looking at an overall decrease for mango demand in the U.S.,” said Alex Arcos, chief marketing executive for Palenque Foods, Nogales, Ariz. 

“While in good times we would load six to seven trucks on a daily basis, right now we are struggling to load three to four trucks per week. Many of our retail commitments have been cancelled or dramatically reduced.” 

Chris Ciruli, partner in Rio Rico, Ariz.-based Ciruli Bros. LLC, also noticed a downward trend.

“We’re still seeing major chains still carrying the bulk of their product items but not their full load,” he said. 

“To compound that, you’re seeing the shutdown of the European market, as well as Mexican and Central American suppliers. You’re not seeing boats go to Europe, so more are destined for the U.S., whether from Costa Rica or Guatemala.” 

The result will be “a very, very promotable crop” of mangoes, Ciruli said.

COVID-19 is affecting numerous channels, said Michael Warren, president of Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Central American Produce Inc.

“What we’re really seeing is on the wholesale, foodservice and cut-fruit side, the biggest impact,” he said. “Foodservice is naturally going to remain quiet, as far as restaurants and schools go.”

That mangoes have become “mainstream” likely will help the product endure the pandemic, Warren said.

“For the most part, mangoes have become an essential item, and I think it’s going to recover quickly,” he said.

It’s important to keep product flowing, said Michael Castagnetto, president of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Robinson Fresh.

“While we are keeping a close eye on mango production, weather, supply chains into the U.S., and opportunities to market this item, given today’s turbulent marketplace, all these updates are reliant on many factors,” he said. 

“These factors include the continuation of USDA inspection and monitoring services, normal operations at ports of entry, and a healthy workforce in Mexico to continue harvesting, packing, and bringing mangoes to market. This is a situation we are closely monitoring.”

Generally, consumer behavior is “finding steadiness” after the initial surge in demand, Castagnetto said.

“Our expectation is for movement to normalize the second half of April,” he said. 

Related content: Mangoes Marketing

“We continue to be fully operational and provide solutions to customers across multiple produce categories. Our domestic and international supply capabilities have not been affected.”

There were several factors that required monitoring during the COVID-19 crisis in early April, Castagnetto said.

Curfew hours in and around New Jersey and Delaware are shortening port hours, which may interfere with the release of supply coming from Central and South America, he said.

“Central and South American countries are starting to enact their own quarantine protocols; this will have an impact on our supply chain, affecting how we bring product to market.”

In addition, Peru had a mandatory quarantine at least through mid-April. The Chilean government announced a 90-day state of catastrophe, but fruit was still moving, Castagnetto said.

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has released COVID-19 daily round-up releases to help share the agency’s ongoing response effort to the outbreak,” he said.
The biggest challenge

COVID-19 will test the mango industry, said Wade Shiba, managing member of Hidalgo, Texas-based GM Produce LLC, which markets the fruit under the Marathon Mangoes brand.

“COVID-19 is the biggest challenge we will face during the 2020 mango season,” he said. “This will be one of the most challenging seasons the industry has ever seen. Now more than ever, the economic climate in the U.S. will have a huge impact on demand. So far this year, we have seen smaller retailers and wholesalers hit the hardest. Many of these have closed temporarily, but the longer the COVID-19 pandemic lasts, the tougher it will be for these businesses to survive.”

The pandemic already has sent devastating ripples through the mango market, said Jessie Capote, executive vice president/owner of Miami-based J&C Tropicals.

“Unfortunately for all, the shutdown of cruise ships, airlines, restaurants, street vendors and all the other outlets, the market has, is and will continue to suffer,” he said March 31. 

“Since the start of last week, prices have dropped significantly and demand from chains stores, one of just a handful of outlets that are still functioning, has, for the short term, dropped, as well.”

Measures mandated by government have forced all segments along the supply chain to adapt, Capote said.

But the business will survive, he said.

“With regards to the future, we at J&C are optimistic that things will soon get better,” he said.

Some outlets, after all, must remain open, said Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Pompano Beach, Fla.-based Southern Specialties Inc.

“Even as all events are cancelled and people are made to stay home other than essential travel, retailers stay open and people go to the stores and buy food,” he said.

“The big unknown is if there will be some type of supply disruption due to forced packhouse shutdowns in any particular country of origin, or any type of border or port restrictions are put into place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

That had not happened by March 27, he noted, “but the next 10-14 days could be telling.”