Once barriers fall, consumer demand tends to soar
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
People in countries like Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and Dubai don't eat a lot of blueberries, but that can change.
Over the long term, regions with low per-capita blueberry consumption have the potential to become significant markets for the crop, said Thomas Payne, a market development consultant for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
"We have to uncover every stone to develop the market for blueberries," Payne said."We have to keep these guys on our radar screen."
Currently, Mexico is the second-largest consumer of U.S. blueberries behind Japan, Payne said. Just two years ago, exports to that country were minimal, he said.
"Nobody thought Mexico was a likely target for consumption," said Rod Cook, an agricultural consultant and USHBC council member.
The economies of China and India are among the most robust in the world and the two counties have large populations, so it makes sense to target them more aggressively with blueberry promotions, Cook said.
In the short term, selling major quantities of blueberries to countries in the Middle East may seem far-fetched, but the world is changing fast, he said.
Areas with high concentrations of people and rising consumerism are worth exploring, Cook said.
"Unless you're out there probing at the edges, you never know where the opportunity is," he said.
However, to reduce the current blueberry supply buildup, the industry should concentrate on the "low-hanging fruit," Cook said.
When blueberry prices were high, the crop began to get "formulated out" of food manufacturers' recipes, he said.
Now the industry should try to reinvigorate consumption among those industrial users, Cook said.
"It's kind of like reintroducing yourself to family and friends," he said.
One of the problems with expanding frozen blueberry consumption in foreign markets is refrigeration infrastructure, Payne said. The capacity to keep blueberries frozen is limited in many countries, but there may be opportunities in freeze-dried products.
In Japan, blueberries are often sold dried or in canned purees, Cook said.
"That's the type of thing that's been adapted to the consumer," he said.
Trade restrictions may also be an impediment, Payne said.
For example, South Korean concerns about potential blueberry maggot infestation have prevented exports of fresh U.S. blueberries to that country -- even though the pest isn't a problem in the West, he said.
Since 2000, the industry has been asking the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to work with South Korean agriculture officials on a plan to open the market to fresh U.S. blueberries from the West, Payne said.
The agency hasn't seemed to make any progress, so the USHBC is now trying to communicate directly with the South Korean ministry of agriculture, he said.
"What we've found is we need to do it ourselves," Payne said.