Imports have always played a crucial role for retailers looking to keep their fresh produce sections well-stocked with a variety of fruits and vegetables year-round.

A look at how much that role has evolved yields some eye-popping results.

Exhibit A: Robert Schueller, director of public relations for Los Angeles-based World Variety Produce, which markets under the Melissa’s brand, says that in the past 20 years, Melissa’s imports have grown by about 40%.

“If you don’t live in the Sun Belt states, ‘local produce’ is only in the spring and summer months,” Schueller says. “As a specialty supplier, imports are key for us. We deal with about 45 different countries.”

Melissa’s customers, Schueller says, don’t want “seasonal” programs, it at all possible. They want the fruits and vegetables they sell to be available year-round. That’s where imports come into play.

Take, for example, pomegranates. Twenty years ago, Melissa’s sourced them from California growers from about late November through February. As demand grew, so did calls for year-round coverage.

An extension of the California season helped — pomegranates from the Golden State now begin shipping in late August. But the domestic season still winds down near the end of February. That’s when Chile takes over supplying whole fruit to Melissa’s, and Malta takes over on supplies of arils, or Pomegranate seeds.

Imported fruits and vegetables allow for a “steady year-round supply of perishable produce,” says Manuel Michel, executive director of the Orlando, Florida-based National Mango Board. 

Without imported produce, he adds, American consumers would have very limited availability and selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially during the winter months. 

Mango imports have increased significantly over the past 13 years, growing from 545 million pounds in 2005 to over 1.017 billion pounds in 2018, an increase of 87%.

“Since mangos are a tropical and subtropical fruit, commercial production is limited to only a few areas within the U.S. that have this climate — Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and parts of Florida and California,” Michel says. “With imports, mangos are available year-round.”


Competition benefits consumers

Another example of how imports have transformed fresh produce availability in the U.S. is dragon fruit, Schueller says. Fifteen years ago, dragon fruit was a relative rarity in the U.S. market. Domestic product from California and Florida supplied the market for only a few months out of the year.

Then Vietnam, Nicaragua and other countries entered the market. Not only did dragon fruit imports fill holes in the market domestic production couldn’t fill, they also competed head-to-head at times with fruit from California and Florida.

“If domestic fruit is expensive, it’s still a competitive market, thanks to Vietnam and other countries,” Schueller says.

The story of another specialty fruit, passion fruit, illustrates how technological leaps can help imports provide U.S. retailers with year-round suppliers of high-quality produce.

In the past, Schueller says, Melissa’s sourced passion fruit from California in the summer and fall and from New Zealand later beginning in late winter or early spring.

Still, there were significant gaps in supply. New production from Florida has helped fill them, but just as, if not more, important has been the advent of hothouse passion fruit in New Zealand, which has significantly expanded production from that country.

“It’s almost year-round now — we carry passion fruit ten months out of the year,” Schueller says.

One of the biggest produce commodities of them all, grapes, also has reaped huge rewards from the extension of programs to include imported fruit.

For a long time, the fresh grape deal in the U.S. meant California product, available from about June to early September. The development of new early and late season varieties has since expanded the California season from May to December.

That has created a competitive environment for late fall and early winter, when Chilean grapes are available for shipment to the U.S. if needed.

And when domestic grapes do finally wind down for the season, not only Chile but also Peru and Mexico are there to meet the need, ensuring retailers access to affordable, high-quality grapes year-round.


Safe, on-time deliveries

To help ensure that imported product makes it to the U.S. with its quality intact, proper temperature management and the best handling practices possible are extremely important, Michel says. 

“Since mangos are a tropical fruit, it’s essential to maintain shipping and storage temperatures in the range of 50 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 12 degrees Celsius), depending on the varieties,” he says. “Lower temperatures can injure mangos and cause flavor loss, ripening inhibition, and shorter shelf-life.”

Packaging is also crucial. In 2020, mango shippers will begin using a new 5-down common footprint box, whose benefits include a stronger design, improved pallet stability, increased ventilation for cooling and ripening purposes, better durability in high-humidity environments and reduction of overall shipping costs. 

“Retailers who have seen the new box are excited and support this change,” Michel says.