Hope and change.

Although these words are not as prominent as they were four years ago during Barack Obama’s first run for the White House, they epitomize what many exhibitors talked about at Peru’s Expoalimentaria Sept. 19-21: Hope for exports to the U.S. and a change in Peru as the opportunities for business grow.

Peru exporters eye the U.S. as a growing marketThe annual agriculture show attracted the most foreign visitors from the U.S., with 384 attendees walking the show floor and seeing what exporters had to offer. Most booths promoted processed produce or grain products and coffee, but some exhibitors are on the brink of selling fresh fruit and vegetables to U.S. companies.

A cooperative of three banana companies from the Tumbes region, for example, plans to begin shipping organic bananas to the U.S. in November, and the group will soon be joined by three more growers.

The U.S. is more promising than Europe as a market because of its proximity to Peru, said Humberto Hidalgo, president of the Organic Banana Association of San Jacinto, one of the three companies currently in the group.

Andreas Economou, chief executive officer of Unifrutti of America Inc., Philadelphia, said Peru is becoming as important as Chile as a source of fresh fruit. He said production is costlier in Chile, there have been weather problems and disruptions related to mining in northern Chile production areas.

“We believe that Peru has a very good future in our business in the U.S.,” Economou said. “They have done the right things, and they are actually doing a better job than the Chileans, I have to say. I’m sorry to say that, but I think it’s correct.”

Unifrutti of America has been buying Peruvian grapes for 3-4 years through other U.S. importers, but production has reached the point the company can buy directly, he said. Peruvian citrus, mainly mandarins and tangelos, is also on Unifrutti’s radar.

“We deal with South African varieties, but we don’t have enough mandarins from them, and it’s a very important part of our citrus program,” Economou said.

“(Peru) has been very promising, or else we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “We’re not only looking at our side (as a buyer), but we’re looking at the consumer side. I think they’re going to have a lot of good, quality grapes.”

Asparagus has been the flagship item from Peru in the past — Mexico exported more asparagus to the U.S. than Peru last season, but Peru exported more than twice the U.S. production — but avocados were in the spotlight at numerous Expoalimentaria booths. The U.S. allowed Peruvian avocados in early 2010, but imports were light until summer 2011 as exporters dealt with U.S. mandated phytosanitary protocols.

“We’re looking for customers,” said Piet-Hein Briet, in sales and marketing for Sociedad Agraria Estanislao del Chimu. “This show is very successful. I went to Hong Kong for Asia Fruit Logistica (Sept. 4-6), but just having a small stand here, it’s been more successful, with more contacts.”

His company is in its second year of exporting grapes to the U.S. (shipments began the week of Sept. 24) and will ship its first avocados when the export season starts in March.

Moises Huerta, commercial specialist with the Embassy of Peru in Washington, D.C., said his agency invited U.S. importers to the expo, including Unifrutti’s Economou.

“This is the biggest food show in Latin America,” Huerta said. “Peruvian exports have grown as a whole and the U.S. is certainly a very important market."

U.S. buyers included Criss Ramirez, sourcing manager for San Antonio-based retailer H-E-B’s global sourcing department, who was scouting for “jarred” processed fruit and vegetable products. She, too, had a positive experience at the expo, making contacts with potential suppliers.