Bananas haven’t lost their appeal in the produce department with their nutritional value, tropical taste and value price.

“Business is good. Banana movement has been very strong, and even with the unprecedented bad weather in mid-Atlantic states sales have been strong,” said Bill Sheridan, executive vice president of sales and marketing at Banacol Marketing Corp., Coral Gables, Fla.

“When the weather breaks, we anticipate sales to be even better,” he said.

As for the crop, cooler weather in the tropics has lowered production in what is becoming a normal cycle.

“We’re becoming accustomed to a disruption in bananas at the start of the year, giving us shorter supplies in the first quarter,” said Sheridan, who imports bananas from Colombia and Costa Rica.

Craig Stephen, North American vice president for bananas at Chiquita Brands International Inc, Cincinnati, said he expects banana supplies to remain tight for at least another month or two.

Jean-Robin Duval, vice president of Canadian sales for Turbana Corp., Coral Gables, said the market for plantains, of which Turbana is the largest importer, also has become extremely tight, leading to price increases.

Cold winter weather made it harder for shippers to handle the fruit, said David Hahn, buyer for Four Seasons Produce, Ephrata, Pa., one of the country’s largest independent produce wholesalers.

“Bananas are temperature-sensitive,” he said. “Once they get below 55 degrees there’s a risk of chill, so an extra-cold winter is always tougher to handle. It comes down to more attention to detail.”

Short supplies have caused prices to increase steadily since the beginning of the year, said Sheridan, “and it’s going to go higher as we go into spring, where historically movement gets better.”

Duval said cost increases over the past three years in growing bananas, implementing new technology and complying with new laws also have taken their toll.

High fuel prices are also hurting the industry, said Hahn of Four Seasons Produce, which processes 18 loads of bananas a week for companies, including Dole.

“It’s not cheap getting bananas on a container and on the one-week ride up here to port,” he said. “All the shippers have fuel surcharges in effect and they continue to climb. Hopefully there’s some relief coming, but it’s one area that’s a challenge.”

As prices rise, retailers in many markets remain committed to helping hard-hit consumers by maintaining prices of 39 and 49 cents a pound.

Stephen said lowering prices doesn’t generally have a great impact because people can’t buy six pounds of sale bananas and store them in the pantry.

“I think you’re going to start seeing pricing across the country return to the levels they were in early 2009 at retail,” he said.

While increased consumer interest, higher prices and a steady supply have helped the organic business, lower demand through the normally busy winter season is cause for concern at San Diego-based organic supplier Organics Unlimited Inc.

“Buyers aren’t locking in contract — they’re checking what the markets are doing,” said chief executive officer Mayra Velazquez de Leon. “But business is steady, which is probably a good word during hard times.”

In specialties, meanwhile, the market is slow but steady.

“Before the economic slowdown, retailers were saying they wanted to differentiate themselves from competitors with variety,” said Dorian Gallegos, director of procurement for Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos.

“But when business isn’t good, they start looking at their high-shrink items. We saw that happening aggressively in the last 18 months.” 

The good news, Gallegos said, is that retailers who stuck with Cavendish bananas may be bringing variety — plantains, reds and baby bananas — back into the mix.

“I think there could be some aggressive growth in the next six months as the number of people willing to spend on varieties starts to creep up again,” said Gallegos.

As for the reported end to the 15-year dispute between the European Union and Latin American countries over banana tariffs, exporters aren’t ready to pop the champagne corks just yet.

“I’ve been with Chiquita for 20 years, and we’ve seen the end to the European battle a number of times,” said Stephen. “I’m hopeful it’s coming to an end, but there’s still a lot of procedural stuff that needs to happen, including approval by the European Parliament. We will continue to plan our business as if the tariffs exist.”