(Jan. 19, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) As the California strawberry industry was about to launch the 2007 harvest, a major name in the industry bowed out.

Sunkist Growers Inc., Sherman Oaks, Calif., abandoned its berry program after nearly two years of marketing berries under the company label.

Claire Smith, director of public affairs, said the company began marketing strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in 2004. She said the company terminated the berry program at the end of last year.

“It was strictly a business decision,” Smith said.

Research indicated there was good acceptance among consumers of the Sunkist berries, Smith said. She said the company shipped 2.5 million cartons of berries during the two-year test program.

In the end, Smith said the company determined the capital investment required to continue and to expand the berry program was too expensive.

“It was just not a good fit for us,” Smith said.

Retailers may have difficulty getting strawberries until mid- to late February. The California Strawberry Commission said the week-long cold snap that hit the state Jan. 12 destroyed a significant portion of the coastal crop in Southern California.

The commission said growers were assessing conditions. Plants that survived should begin generating new berries as soon as the weather warms.