(Oct. 10) SAN FRANCISCO — Even as West Coast ports reopened late in the afternoon of Oct. 9, many in the produce industry were still wondering how long it will take for things to get back to normal.

Two days after creating a board of inquiry to look into the situation, President Bush got a federal court to issue an injunction ordering the ports to reopen.

Ken Gilliland, manager of transportation and international trade for the Western Growers Association, Newport Beach, Calif., said that even with the ports reopened, it could still take a few weeks to know the full effect of the shutdown.

Gilliland said a damage assessment would depend on the condition of the product. Commodities like grapes, celery and broccoli can hold out longer than avocados, lettuce or peaches.

“For a lot of the product, if it’s not on the ship already, some shippers will probably try to retrieve it and see if they can put it into the domestic market or maybe Canada,” he said.

Avi Crane, vice president of Calavo Growers Inc., Santa Ana, said his company has had imported avocados from Chile, New Zealand and Mexico tied up at the docks since the beginning of the lockout. He is hoping that the ports will move swiftly in getting the perishable goods to their destinations.

“We don’t have enough fruit to supply our customers who need to supply their consumers,” he said. “We’re holding our breath. We don’t know what’s going to be unloaded first.”

Crane said on Oct. 9 that Calavo had about 8 million pounds of Chilean and New Zealand avocados waiting to be unloaded. By contrast, he said, the weekly demand for avocados in the U.S. is about 12 million pounds. Right now, the California harvest is winding down, and Calavo growers are harvesting only about 600 bins per day. Crane said that represents 28% of the average weekly movement during peak harvesting.

“Usually the imports make up that difference,” he said.

Crane wasn’t the only one wanting to get things moving. On Oct. 3, Dole Food Co. Inc., Westlake Village, filed a complaint in the Federal District Court of Los Angeles seeking the release of approximately 8.4 million pounds of bananas and other perishable cargo that were are risk of spoilage at the Port of Los Angeles.

While the court subsequently dismissed the complaint, Dole said in a statement on Oct. 8 that it has lost $2.4 million so far due to spoilage, lost sales and increased shipping costs.

James McCranie, vice president of international sales at Seald Sweet LLC, Vero Beach, Fla., said his co-op had at least 30 containers of grapefruit held at West Coast ports. He said the grapefruit could survive and still make the journey to Japan if the proper temperature has been maintained.

“If the product gets put on a boat and shipped in a timely manner, it should be fine,” he said Oct. 8.

Claire Smith, manager of public relations for Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, said her company was ready to resume operations at the Port of Hueneme in Ventura County as soon as the dockworkers returned.

“Our weekly charter goes to Japan from that port,” she said. “It’s a smaller port and they don’t have the congestion problem.”

One thing is for sure, shipping times will be increased because of the lockout. Gilliland said transit times could be increased at least an additional couple of weeks to Asian markets.

McCranie said he tried to head off the problem by shipping product from the East Coast. A trip from California to Japan, he said, normally takes 12-14 days. A trip from Florida to Japan could take up to 25 days.

“Most of my fruit was shipped about 10 days ago,” he said on Oct. 8. “If I was shipping it from the East Coast, the transit time would be similar. If it gets loaded within the next four to six days, it would not be what I would consider a disastrous situation.”

Gilliland said other factors besides congestion could keep the ports from getting back to normal for several weeks. Not the least of which is whether the dockworkers will be working at full speed.

“It doesn’t make sense that the (shippers) would lock them out if they were working at a normal pace to begin with,” he said. “Just because you let them back doesn’t mean they are going to go back to the normal work pace.”

Another problem, Gilliland said, is that even if the produce is salvageable, some buyers may not want it just because it’s been sitting around for so long. If that happens, shippers will likely have to try to find other markets.

“Some shippers will probably try to retrieve it and see if they can put it on the domestic market or maybe Canada,” he said.