(June 10) The fresh produce industry will continue to provide American consumers with higher-quality, more conveniently packaged fruits and vegetables year-round.

In return, richer and more health-conscious consumers will continue to buy more and more produce.

That’s the verdict from Roxanne Clemens, managing director of the Midwest Agribusiness Trade Research and Information Center at Iowa State University, Ames. In “The Expanding U.S. Market for Fresh Produce,” a study published in the winter 2004 Iowa Ag Review, Clemens projects a rosy future for American produce consumers.

An import boom has brought the industry closer to the Holy Grail of year-round availability of high-quality fruits and vegetables, and greater selection has given an aging, increasingly affluent populace more choices in its quest for healthful, tasty eating.

“With higher incomes, consumers spend more on produce,” Clemens said. “And better shipping and handling methods have improved the shelf life and appearance of produce and have made produce from other countries available when it’s out of season in the U.S.”

Between 1980 and 2001, fresh fruit imports to the U.S. increased by 155% and fresh vegetable imports by 265%, Clemens reports.

In 2001, imports accounted for 38.9% of U.S. fresh fruit consumption, up from 24.2% in 1980. Fresh vegetable imports accounted for 11.6% of vegetable consumption in 2001, up from 5.5% in 1980.

More imports mean more variety, Clemens reports. In 1994, U.S. supermarkets stocked fewer than 350 produce items on average. A decade later, that number’s up around 560.

And while commodity sales will continue to make up the bulk of produce sales for some time to come, the increasing wealth of Americans and their willingness to spend it on produce will boost demand for fresh-cut, value-added and new packaging, Clemens predicts.

In other study findings, many retailers, especially small independents, are emphasizing local production, organics, heirloom varieties and specialty crops for ethnic cooking, Clemens said. Consumers also are varying their diets with exotic fruits and vegetables, many of which are imported.

In the at-home market, fresh fruits should lead the way for all fresh commodities, Clemens said, with expected growth of 24% to 28% by 2020. Citrus, apples, grapes, melons and strawberries all will show up more frequently in consumers’ refrigerators.

But fruits aren’t the only beneficiaries of greater consumer interest in fresh produce.

Several vegetables have shown healthy increase in per capita consumption in recent years, Clemens reports, citing U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Consumption of carrots was up 14% from 2002 to 2003. Sweet corn consumption rose 7%, broccoli 9%, garlic 13%, cauliflower 32%, spinach 14%, and asparagus 16%.