Mangos, avocados and the like have long since become the norm in the fruit aisle, and their share continues to grow. However, trading in them requires a great deal of finesse.
Peter Nordmann* has had a stressful few weeks. During the Christmas season, people buy a particularly large number of exotic fruits – a good portion of the quantities purchased annually, for which Nordmann is responsible, is needed for the days between Christmas and New Year's Eve. And there's no rest afterwards. Demand is particularly high almost all winter long. Nordmann is pleased with the good sales figures. He works as a production manager for a Dutch fruit and vegetable supplier. Their range covers almost 200 varieties. From a purely logistics perspective, this is a mammoth task. Ultimately, every mango and every papaya has to be delivered at exactly the right time, and Nordmann has to coordinate everything.
Exotic fruits have long since become a common sight in the supermarkets of industrialised countries, and production is increasing. No other food group has such high average annual growth rates – while worldwide production of the four main exotic fruits, avocado, papaya, pineapple and mango, was 69 million tonnes in 2008, by 2017 it had grown to an estimated 92 million tonnes, an increase of 33 per cent. Most stays in the producing countries for their own consumption; nevertheless the remaining seven million tonnes of export goods were worth about ten billion US dollars. This does not include bananas, kiwis and citrus fruits, as these are now such a normal part of the local diet that most statistics no longer class them among the exotics. Among the exporters, Costa Rica leads the field followed by Mexico. The top importer is the USA, followed by the European Union, where the Dutch, British and Germans in particular love exotic fruits.
Ready to eat
Nordmann starts his morning tour with the mangos. They arrive by ship, from Mexico, Israel, Brazil, Peru and Côte d'Ivoire. In the past this would have been inconceivable, because the journey takes up to three weeks. It has only been made possible by the development of CA containers. CA stands for Controlled Atmosphere. The inside of the containers contains special air: a higher carbon dioxide content and reduced oxygen content, as well as high humidity ensure that the ripening process of the fruit is delayed. They are also cooled, but the temperature should not fall below ten degrees otherwise there is a risk of cold damage.
Nordmann nods to the seasonal workers, who carefully pick up each individual fruit in their hands, turn it around and inspect it for damage. The production manager takes a mango and cuts into it. It is still firm as it should be, but has some sweetness – the taste is tested again and again in random samples. This also includes laboratory tests, mainly used to determine the sugar content. Nothing is more important than keeping the ripening process under control. That's why Nordmann always keeps an eye on the ripening chambers. Are the temperature and humidity correct? Customers expect the fruit to be ready for consumption in the shop, bearing stickers saying 'ready to eat' (or 'essreif' in German). Pineapples, pomegranates and lychees on the other hand are only chilled. They can only be harvested once ripe for consumption.
There are several reasons why demand for exotic fruits has risen. A large part of this is due to the fact that eating habits in industrialised countries have changed. Awareness of healthy food has increased, and fresh and natural products are in demand. As incomes rise, people treat themselves to more exotic fruits. There is also the media hype around so-called superfoods. There is no official definition; the term is used for natural foods whose nutritional composition is said to be particularly healthy. For example, the avocado bears this title. The consequence: Since 1990, global import demand has increased by an average of 14 per cent per year.
Transparent retail chain
Hass, Fuerte and Pinkerton are the most consumed varieties of avocado, although Nordmann is convinced that hardly any end consumers pay attention to their names. Each variety has its own taste, from nutty and salty to mildly sweet and usually creamy. Nordmann has already made several visits to the huge fields of avocado trees in Mexico, the main export country. His colleagues there regularly inspect the production sites. It is not just a matter of the quality of the harvest, but also the social circumstances of workers. Sustainability is also becoming increasingly important in the production of exotic fruits. Thanks to the Internet, information density has increased and consumers are demanding transparency. Many retail companies are therefore joining associations that promote fair working conditions and environmental protection in the producing countries, such as Sedex or the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI).
Peter Nordmann has arrived at one of the 17 different packing stations, which occupy almost half of the company's 20,000 square metre site. Papayas are placed into bowls in pairs and checked again. At the end of the process, each package is given a barcode, information on the product name, weight and country of origin as well as a 'best before' or 'sell by' date. Nordmann is satisfied, the fruits look great and will taste great too.
* Peter Nordmann does not work in this company. His name stands for a team of employees dedicated to the quality of exotic fruits.