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    Supermarket FRESH FOOD Business: It's time to pick berries

    As awareness of their nutritional benefits grows, popular, profitable berries can be expected to stay top-of-mind in the produce department.

    If there is such a thing as an all-American fruit, it would have to be the strawberry. Through the ages, the delicate, heart-shaped berry has connoted purity, passion, and healing in stories, literature, and paintings. A member of the rose family, it is unique in that it is the only fruit with seeds on the outside rather than the inside.

    Says "Produce Pete" Napolitano, produce spokesman for Carteret, N.J.-based Pathmark Stores and resident "green grocer" at WNBC in New York and its sister station WCAU in Philadelphia: "The first refrigerated shipment of strawberries in the U.S. was made in 1843, when 40,000 quarts were shipped out of Cincinnati. Today, more than 300,000 acres of strawberries are cultivated worldwide, half of them in the U.S. California is the biggest producer, followed by Florida, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Guatemala."

    Although there are different strawberry strains, Napolitano, who offers tips to consumers on how to choose the best fruits and vegetables in a three-minute presentation every Saturday morning on the popular Weekend Today in New York, says there are three basic types: wild (often called fraises des bois), commercially grown hybrids, and local. "I put locals into a separate category because, compared to strawberries grown and shipped from California and Florida, local strawberries—picked ripe by hand and sold close to home—taste totally different."

    Commercial cultivars are bred to be firmer and heartier so that they'll stand up to shipping, says Napolitano, who emphasizes the importance of proper temperature controls in transporting the fruit from farm to market.

    To be sure, temperature management has become a critical issue for strawberry marketers, many of which have been hard at work finding ways to separate their products from the rest of the pack. In a recent report released by Watsonville, Calif.-based Sambrailo Packaging, good temperature management is the single most important factor for extended shelf life of strawberries, which require prompt, rapid, uniform cooling as soon as possible after harvest to remove the field heat.

    Factors that affect the rate of cooling include: container type, orientation, and venting characteristics; density of produce in the container; and airflow capacity. Sambrailo, maker of the Mixim packaging system, is one of several suppliers that produce modular clamshells for common-footprint, or Euro flat, shipping containers that enable mixing of different container sizes on a 48-inch by 40-inch pallet.

    Strawberry growers increasingly favor clamshell packaging because of its ability to showcase premium berries with greater clarity and appeal.

    One-pound clamshells continue to be the most popular container for Southern California shippers, which have this year enjoyed an extraordinarily strong growing season, says Dominique Hansen, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission.

    "We've experienced record-breaking strawberry volume in February, with over 3.9 million trays harvested, up from 1.2 million a year ago," says Hansen.

    At least a portion of California's gain this year has come about as a result of Florida's substandard growing season, according to Ila K. Allen, director of marketing for the Plant City-based Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Noting the cold winter, hot spring, and plentiful rainfall, Allen says: "Our season officially ended the second week of March, which made for a very disappointing year, to say the least. Our volume was fairly low in the beginning of the season, and it no sooner started picking up before it was abruptly over."

    Florida, which typically produces about 15 percent of the nation's strawberries and virtually all of the winter strawberries, has developed a strong niche market for many East Coast retailers, according to Allen, whose organization represents more than 125 grower-members with nearly 7,000 acres of strawberries in Florida. The majority of the acreage is in the Plant City-Dover area.

    With recent data indicating that berries are the No. 1 produce department category in terms of gross profit dollars per square foot, strawberries are both a highly popular and profitable part of the retailer's merchandising mix. In addition to their popular taste, strawberries are packed with nutritional and heart-healthy attributes, a fact that has become the basis for the California Strawberry Commission's new marketing initiative, the Red Edge.

    The recently introduced campaign aims to link the combined appeal of color, shape, taste, and increased availability of strawberries with their nutrition and health benefits. Several nutrition research projects have been launched that are expected to further link strawberry consumption to anti-aging and disease prevention.

    The Red Edge was inspired by the Produce for Better Health Foundation's new 5 A Day, the Color Way program, says Hansen. She says toolkits are being developed that will help retailers profitably anchor the Red Edge in their produce departments with California strawberries.

    Michael Hollister, v.p. of sales and marketing at Watsonville-based Driscoll Strawberry Associates, is among the many strawberry industry executives who are bullish about the outlook for the Red Edge. "The entire berry category—strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries—rank in the top four of the six most nutritious fruits, and as a result we are working in a category within the produce industry that's got great appeal and great health benefits to the consumer," he says.

    'Great benefits'

    Hollister continues: "I believe that over the next couple of years, berry fruits will be a huge component of consumers' diets because of their great health benefits, and not just because they're so sexy and sweet."

    The newly formed Global Berry Farms is poised to take full advantage of the potential berries offer retailers, according to John Corrigan, director of marketing for the grower-owned cooperative.

    Formed earlier this year as an equal partnership between Naturipe Berry Growers, the Michigan Blueberry Growers, and Hortifrut S.A., a large Chile-based berry grower, Global Berry's singular goal, says Corrigan, "is to make retailers' lives easier. One thing we recognized that's key to making the partnership even more successful is to move to a single brand for our berries, and we are presently in the midst of transitioning everything to the Naturipe brand."

    As a single-source, year-round berry supplier, "Naturipe can now provide a complete berry category solution for our customers," says Corrigan. "By combining the products and expertise of Naturipe, MBG, and Hortifrut, Global Berry Farms is able to collectively offer our customers not only the opportunity to market the fruit of three world class producers, but also the highest level of customer service possible."

    GBF will be capable of providing promotional volumes with cross-promotional opportunities, which will allow retailers "to aggressively market all four berries at one time or concentrate on one line with supporting appearances by the other three," says Corrigan.

    Corrigan says the fruits' nutritional story "provides the industry the opportunity to market possibly some of the most exciting food nutrition news to come along in a long time." The corresponding challenge, he adds, "is to best figure out how to effectively capitalize on all of the good press the different berries have gotten lately, and that will likely continue over the next few years."

    Michael Leach, v.p., sales and marketing for California Giant, also headquartered in Watsonville, says, "One of the most important strategies when it comes to berries is to have a yearly program that is focused and developed with your supplier. Retailers need to have clear communication about how crops are progressing, when the season will start, when the peak will happen, and when the season will wind down long before the selling season starts."

    When people look at the calendar for berry merchandising, Leach says, the planning officially gets underway at Valentine's Day, and continues straight through Easter, Mother's Day, the Fourth of July, and back-to-school. "Ideally, what they want is to make sure solid plans are in place to display and merchandise berries all the way through those key periods," he says.

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