Finding a place for Italian fruit in North America

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Finding a place for Italian fruit in North America

Abate Fetel pears have not taken off as was hoped in the U.S. market, but traders are finding growth opportunities in kiwifruit, organic mandarins and seeded grapes. In discussions with Italian representatives at the Freshness from Europe stand during the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) Fresh Summit in Orlando, also found the industry had high hopes elsewhere on the continent - namely the Mexican kiwifruit market.

"We decided last year after a few years of trials to discontinue the item," said Trucco CEO Nick Pacia when asked about Abate Fetel pears.

Around two years ago the Italian industry worked hard to find a niche for the variety in the United States - the fruit was even showcased at New York foodie mecca Eataly - but the elongated cultivar just hasn't made the cut of what Americans are looking for.

"The pear, even though it’s beautiful and I love to eat it, there’s not commercial the future maybe," said Pacia, who is based at New York's Hunts Point Terminal Market.

"In Canada it does very well because there are more Europeans who are used to the flavor, but the American consumer is a little bit more complicated."

It has been the same story of Bologna-based Unacoa Spa, which sells its fruit under the brand Salvi.

"The pear business we tried to do a couple of years back but we didn’t have much success," said Unacoa's export manager Andre Broe Jensen.

"We still have the opening of export in the U.S. with pears, but it’s an unknown pear here and kind of a specialty pear. On top of that we still see a big production in the U.S. of Williams, Bartlett, Bosc and other pears.

"It was hard getting in but we trust in a few years, especially in Italian communities, they will try these Abate pears again."

Kiwifruit is king

But where Abate Fetels have failed Italian kiwifruit exports have forged ahead, whether it be through entrepreneurial nous or sheer necessity brought on by an excess of kiwifruit on the European market and a need for new outlets.

"We’re now starting with our kiwifruit harvest and we’ll start shipping in a week or two," said Broe Jensen.

"A good season is here - size-wise we're in the middle where we want to be, quality-wise the shape of the fruit is looking good, and we see 20-25% less fruit than last year which is right on a normal season.

"So we don't see any fruit missing, we just had a huge crop last year." kiwi-shutterstock_360751064

Cesena-based Apofruit overseas export manager Renzo Balestri agreed the kiwifruit season was looking "normal".

"This is good because when there’s overproduction in kiwifruit it’s always difficult to realize a good price. Sales are slower on some sizes.

"For the United States we expect to increase the volume because generally speaking Italian producers are focused on more export markets outside Europe, because the European market is quite full."

He added the PMA Fresh Summit was also a good opportunity to meet with other growers and traders to discuss the Hayward kiwifruit season; the main variety when it comes to Italy's kiwifruit deal in the U.S.

"The United States is also always a pioneer market for packaging and materials," Balestri mentioned.

Pacia said kiwifruit demand remained steady in the United States, but the season ahead might be challenging.

"It’s going to be a complicated season at the beginning I think because New Zealand still has a lot of volume with inventory on hand in Europe as well as here. So it'll be a slow start for the Italians.

"The consumption has not gone up as much as we would like it to – we have grown because we have done things that are different to what others are doing. Value is number one, and quality has to be superb - we have some specifications in place at shipping point," he said, adding Trucco packed with its own brand 'Kiwistar'.

Pacia said the company was just starting to load Soreli Gold kiwifruit, with green kiwifruit set for loading soon. When asked how the Italian fruit held up against the Californian competition, the executive opted to focus on quality regardless of origin.

"I think some retailers, some customers, prefer Italian versus Californian, but overall if the kiwifruit is harvested at the right brix and condition it is a good kiwifruit no matter where it is from.

"I believe that if you do the right thing for the industry, we’ll increase consumption; it’s about what we make available for the consumer to eat."

Movement in Mexico?

The principle of a 'rising tide lifts all boats' could also apply to kiwifruit sales south of the border in Mexico as well.

"Countries like Mexico at the moment are not allowed to import from Italy," said Balestri, who said understanding other markets in the region was also an important reason to attend the PMA event.

"There is a protocol in discussion between the European Community and the Mexican government – this is happening slowly, the process takes time.

"The governments surely want to speed up the procedure but it’s important for us to be here and understand what the future is, whether it’s a profitable market for kiwifruit or not.

"We believe it will be, because in the North American continent only California produces kiwifruit, and whenever production is lacking there is a good opportunity for European producers to supply Mexico."

Tapping into niche markets

As the Abate Fetel example illustrates, Italian produce ambitions in the United States go beyond kiwifruit even if they don't always go as planned. From discussions with Italian industry representatives at the Freshness from Europe stand, mandarins and table grapes may also show promise.

"We’ve also discussed doing grapes together with one of our customers – this is a niche with seeded grapes, but I think we’ll trial that next year. It will be from July-August to September-October," said Broe Jensen.

Pacia said this last season has been difficult for Italian table grapes due to weather issues, especially for the Victoria variety, but the fruit has found a place in small independent retailers, Asian grocers and Mom and Pop stores.

"There was a lot of rain, a lot of heat that compromised the quality somehow, the growing of the berries, and we kind of diminished our value in order to maintain the same quality we usually do," he said.

"The Victoria we just started loading now seems to have the same problem and it's probably going to be down as well.

"It’s a slow seller as well because it’s a seeded grape, and seeded grape consumption is much lower than seedless."

Trucco also imports fresh chestnuts and dry figs, but the most recent prospective development would be an offering of clementines out of Calabria in southern Italy.

"It’s feasible because we’re only going to import organic. If I took conventional it probably would not be," he said.

"It’s grown probably at the beginning of November. That's when the harvest begins and it goes through to Christmas. There are different varieties that come at different times.

"Usually we start receiving around Nov. 15, and we end receiving towards the end of January."

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