Inconsistent quality for Chilean blueberries in previous years has created some uncertainty in the marketplace coming into this year’s deal, but suppliers emphasize improvements are in the works.

“The last few years out of Chile, fruit quality has been inconsistent, and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth for the consumer,” said Joe Barsi, director of business development at California Giant Inc., Watsonville, Calif.

“The industry has made strides in working together to make sure there is more quality control and quality assurance at the grower level.”

Barsi said last year the market was surprised by the high volume, and using smaller pack sizes left it ill-prepared.

Inadequate shipping space also caused delays that hurt berry shelf life.

“Last year, there was a big increase in fruit from week 49 to 52, and a lot of fruit packed up in a small sizes,” he said.

“Retail prices were high and that backed up the fruit and fruit was plugged in the supply chain. It had been sitting there for a while and was not as good.”

Mario Flores, blueberry product manager for Naturipe Farms LLC, Naples, Fla., agreed that the industry had to undergo a learning curve to adjust to the rapid growth of volume from new plantings maturing.

A very concentrated peak of dukes in the central valley area last year also caused logistical delays and led to poor postharvest handling, which he said must be corrected this year.

“Sometimes fruit may have to wait until the next available boat, four to five days later,” he said.

“But now, as these newer acres are coming into production, people are getting a better grasp of new production volumes, and they are getting prepared.”

This year, Barsi said an industry agreement on bigger pack sizes is a good first step. The right price at retail and good quality also will be essential for a successful deal.

Barsi added that one of the reasons why California Giant added a full-time staff person in Santiago was to help with quality control.

“We wanted to make sure our quality is consistent with our brand,” he said. “He is down there building new relationships with suppliers and overseeing quality control/ quality assurance on the ground.”

Mark Girardin, president of North Bay Produce Inc., Traverse City, Mich., said that as a grower cooperative, North Bay does not work with many third-party personnel, meaning stockholders’ primary concern is getting the best berries to market.

He also said that the berries are run through soft-sorting equipment in Chile before leaving the country of origin. Upon arrival in Miami, inspectors and staff personnel review the fruit to see if it is in good condition or if it needs to be repackaged.

A complete line of soft-sorting equipment at North Bay’s 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Miami has room for 1,300 pallets and allows the company to divert product to processing if necessary.

Janice Honigberg, president of Sun Belle Inc., Washington, D.C., said it is also important to pack directly into the clamshell instead of packing on a line.

“This allows us to receive the firmest fruit without as much bruising as one would see from a line,” she said, adding that the company is targeting quality control at the field level.

Frank Ramos, president of The Perishable Specialist Inc., Doral, Fla., said how the product will be handled once it arrives in the U.S. should not be an afterthought, especially if it is being flown in and cannot be refrigerated en route.

“A lot of it has to do with the logistics that the importer has in place,” he said.
“Once it gets on the plane, it will be in ambient temperature until it arrives. That’s where we come in, having the trucks already spotted at the airlines. We have customs and FDA already cleared ahead of time, and being that Chile has a USDA preclearance, we are able to load the product off the plane as quickly as possible.”

Supply chain analysis, better postharvest handling and good weather are some of the factors suppliers identified as indicative that the deal will be markedly better this year.

“If they can have relatively dry weather, we’ll be fine,” said Phil Neary, director of operations and grower relations at Sunny Valley International Inc., Glassboro, N.J.

However, Neary explained if there is rain and unseasonable warmth during peak volumes, growers will have to use extra caution when handling, and employ soft-sorters to minimize the amount of low quality fruit that ships to market.

“I think it’s getting the fruit picked and cooled down as quickly as possible,” Barsi said.

“The majority of growers and exporters are making sure they have analyzed their supply chains and fruit once it is harvested, and that it is transported to the cooler to get the field heat out of it, and it is shipped in a timely manner.”

Flores said improved handling and additional precooling and packing facilities are coming on line this year.

“Up until a couple of years ago, the existing facilities were fine and great for coming in, but with the increase in fruit the last couple of years, a lot of people in the industry are playing catch-up,” he said.

Bobby Stokes, berry sales manager at Curry & Co. LLC, Brooks, Ore., compared Chile with Oregon’s rise to commercial blueberry production.

“Just like it took us decades in Oregon, they’re still working it out down there,” he said. “They are young in the deal comparatively, so they are getting stronger every year.”