(May 30) BANGKOK, Thailand — Retailers in the U.S. should be able to import exotic Thai fresh fruit if the U.S. Department of Agriculture meets its goal of publishing a Thai import standards rule by the end of the year.

A draft of the rule should be available for public comment this summer, though a number of factors combine to ensure it may not be an easy process.

The admission of six Thai fruits — lychee, mango, mangosteen, rambutan, pineapple and longan — will only be allowed for fruit that is irradiated.

It remains unclear whether the private or public sector in Thailand will foot the bill for irradiation treatment. Two irradiation facilities — one owned by the Thai government and another by the private sector — are operational.

Shipping the fruit is another issue.

Its perishability requires the fruit be shipped by air, which means an additional $1.37 freight charge per pound of fruit, said Chusak Chuenprayoth, incoming chairman of the Thai Fruit and Vegetable Producers Association and president of Kamphaeng-Saen Commercial Co. Ltd., Nakornpathom.

The association was formed as a separate venture from the Thai Fruits and Vegetables Exporters Association, which targets China as an export market.

GUARANTEEING SAFE PRODUCT

It’s a different ballgame when dealing with Europe and the U.S., he said, particularly when it comes to food safety. The new association is aiming for the European Union and the U.S. for its exports, Chuenprayoth said.

The association has helped set up a food safety program for the entire supply chain, including farmers, producers, exporters and chemical applicators, he said.

Recent problems with pesticide residue levels in Thai fruit exported to Europe caused the member-funded organization to look at ways to guarantee a safe product.

“We’re losing market in EU,” he said.

The cost and efficiency of irradiation machines also could serve as obstacles, he added.

“We can’t irradiate fruit fast enough,” Chuenprayoth said. “Fresh fruit is perishable, and it sits waiting to be irradiated.”

However, Dick Spezzano, president of Monrovia, Calif.-based Spezzano Consulting Services, said he didn’t expect the fruits to come with a higher price tag because of the country’s low production costs.

Irradiated papaya from Hawaii is currently available in some retail stores, and Spezzano said aside from a small, vocal community that’s anti-irradiation, consumers are ready for the treated fruit.

ORGANIC SHOPPERS CONCERNED

Consumers who purchase organic produce may be more concerned about the treatment’s effects.

At Town & Country Markets, Seattle, where organic produce makes up 38% of the stores’ produce departments, produce specialist Joe Pulicicchio said it’s the chain’s policy not to stock irradiated fruit, though he wouldn’t rule out selling it in the future.

"I would never say never, but at this point in time, there’s a lot of opposition to it and concern about the health benefits and what it does to fruit’s molecular structure," he said.

The retailer’s organic consumer is very concerned about irradiation, he added.

The Thai association is still waiting to see scientific proof that irradiation extends shelf life, he said. Even if the treatment doubles the fruits’ shelf life to two weeks, that wouldn’t qualify it for shipment by boat, which takes about a month, he said.

Protecting against fruit flies is a requirement to enter the U.S. market, which irradiation addresses, but logistics and costs are key factors too, he said.

“The costs have to be put on the table and discussed,” Chuenprayoth said.