Brazilian papayas and mangoes in the spotlight

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Brazilian papayas and mangoes in the spotlight

HLB Specialties has been supplying Brazilian papayas to the European market for more than two decades, and its CEO Homero Levy de Barros moved to the U.S. 16 years ago when that market was opened for the exotic fruit. During Fruit Logistica in Berlin, the executive spoke candidly about the importance of quality for papayas and their tropical companion the mango, with the message, 'you cannot cheat the consumer'.

"At the end of the day we have to eat the product. It's not for decoration - if there's no taste, it defeats the purpose," says Levy de Barros, speaking to at the stand of his company's Brazilian partner Caliman Agricola. Golden papaya - HLB

He says consumption of papayas has developed significantly over time but the fruit is still far from reaching its potential.

"If you go back 20 years ago, papaya was a completely unknown product. It used to be green and there was no taste and we found it was an uphill battle to convince the growers to send fruit with more color, and convince the retailers to accept fruit with more color.

"I think the market here still has huge potential because only 10% of the population eats papayas...but it is very difficult to produce papaya."

He says a lot of companies have entered the papaya sector without enough expertise or knowledge, and this has led to price falls.

"That tempts a lot of retailers to say 'he's cheaper, I'm going to buy from him', but in these cases either they don't have the right pesticides, or the wrong ripening process for the fruit, or the fruit has been matured in the banana rooms and doesn’t have the taste.

"It takes a very special, dedicated family grower to produce year after year, and that's what Caliman's been doing for over 30 years."

He says it is sometimes difficult to compete with low-cost growers, but on the other hand Levy de Barros has been in the industry long enough to know 'there's no magic'.

"So if if a client tells me, he has to lower his price because someone else is selling cheaper, I know that's not going to last very long."

Regardless of the executive's opinions regarding cheap papaya production and the necessity for planning, his heart went out to many farmers who had lost their fortunes due to recent torrential rains in Brazil.

"There is always going to be rain. We just had terrible weather in Brazil. More than 50,000 people lost their homes in one small area where they produce papayas in Espiritu Santo, in the Linhares area.

"This is very unfortunate because we know how much it takes to produce papayas, and several growers lost their complete crop – everything. So, you talk about US$1-2 million in losses, there's no insurance for that.

"We have a lot of respect for people who produce papayas, and we know how much they suffer, how much they have to babysit every single tree."

He says the idea of 'babysitting' each tree is quite literal, with the need to go through every row to check for ringspot virus, which destroys leaves, making the fruit vulnerable to sun damage.

"Then it doesn't produce anymore. It doesn’t affect human beings, it just destroys the leaves.

"There is no treatment. You cut the tree and you try to make a barricade against this, and one of the reasons why Caliman is so successful is that they are in the middle of 42,000 hectares of natural forest.

"The virus is transferred with an aphid, a little bug, so when you have birds around they go and eat it. We believe that by doing pre-emptive elimination of the trees that have the virus to avoid propagation and being in an area where you are surrounded, is one of the answers."

HLB Specialties receives around 70% of Caliman's production, which is of the smaller golden variety the company also receives from Jamaica. For the larger Fomosa variety that is grown further in the north of Brazil, HLB sources its fruit from Mexico and Guatemala.

He adds that Caliman has 1,000 employees, and about 60% of the papayas it gets from the farm go to Europe while the remainder are sent to the U.S. and Canada.

Another product HLB sources from Brazil is mangoes, which have gone through their share of changes in the South American country.

"The mango market has changed from the Tommy Atkins which has a very good blush and color, is strong and travels well, but doesn’t have the taste," Levy de Barros says.

"So most of the growers in Brazil are switching from the Tommy Atkins to the Palmer, which is another variety, and we’re seeing more and more interest in receiving products by air.

"Yes, it’s cheaper by boat, but in the end there’s no taste," he says, adding that 100% of HLB's Palmer mangoes are sent by airfreight.

"We have clients that demand fruit by air. It’s not the same volume – you cannot compare volumes by sea and by air, as the majority of supermarket demand is by boat, and the volume Brazil exports is huge.

"I don’t think there will be enough space to do that [send all fruit by air] but everyone has to pick their own battles, and we’ve decided to stick to the focus of this company to give an excellent eating quality."

Photo: HLB Specialties





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