(April 7, 9:17 a.m.) ANTIGUA, Guatemala — Guatemala produce industry leaders are focused on continuing the country’s increased exports to the U.S.

“In 2008 we had a 15% increase in Guatemalan fruit exports to the U.S. and a 20% increase in vegetables over 2007,” said Roberto Rosenberg, trade commissioner for the Guatemala Trade & Investment Office, New York.

According to Agexport, the Guatemalan Exporter’s Association, Guatemala City, 87% of all fruit exports are headed to the U.S., valued at $434 million (except for bananas).

Snow peas, sugar snap peas, mini vegetables, baby carrots, mangoes, papayas, pineapples and blackberries have seen increased shipments to the U.S. in recent years, the export association reports.

Food safety focus

During Agritrade, Guatemala's biennial produce summit, which took placeMarch 19-20, Robert Colescott, president and chief executive officer of Southern Specialties, Pompano Beach, Fla., spoke about food safety, sustainability and traceability.

“We have reached a point where there are tremendous opportunities for Central America to start exploiting its location in the North America market, particularly the Eastern seaboard,” Colescott said. “But the threat of an (foodborne illness) outbreak is something that could tumble this entire economy.”

Colescott said if Guatemala didn’t adapt to the new requirements corporate America is expecting from the supply chain, U.S. buyers were going to look elsewhere.

“That applies to traceability, social responsibility, proper infrastructures to support the cold chain management, as well as utilizing extended shelf life technology,” Colescott said. “That’s part of our mission — to create a high-performance culture in Guatemala.”

Many Guatemalan growers are used to complying with international food safety guidelines and standards and have exported large quantities of produce to the U.S. and other counties.

Guatemala City-based Planesa SA is predominantly a blackberry grower that has seen success exporting to the U.S., exporting blackberries from Guatemala (with three production plantations) and Mexico.

“Our goal this year is to export 1 million cases of blackberries from both Mexico and Guatemala,” said Roberto Castañeda Jr., vice president.

His father, Roberto Castañeda Sr., president of the company, said Planesa has been growing blackberries for 25 years and exports 65% of all Guatemalan blackberries.

Lately, the recent world economic crisis has complicated exports, especially with transportation costs.

“In the past we use to fly our blackberries to Europe and the U.S., and that cost $2.40 per box,” Castañeda said. “Now we go by sea, and we spent 70 cents. So we save $1.70 if we go by ship instead of air.”

Another longtime grower, Guatemala City-based Popoyán, plans to ship 1.3 million boxes of pineapples to the U.S. this year.

Francisco Viteri, Popoyan’s supply chain manager, said Agritrade gave him the opportunity to meet new buyers.

“It takes us three days to get to Miami and four to reach Los Angeles,” he said.