Commission delegate says Japan provides an alternative for California growers
By RICHARD SMITH
For the Capital Press
TOKYO -- A California Strawberry Commission delegation was in Japan last week touting the berry's benefits and ample supply as a way to build consumer demand.
The California strawberry may be mistakenly perceived as a harder berry, maybe sour or acidic, but commissioners understand the number one marketing tool for anybody, in strawberry or vegetable or other fruits, is the consumer experience, commission president Mark Murai said.
"And we have dedicated and prioritized our breeding programs toward achieving a positive consumer experience," Murai said.
Speaking to trade representatives and journalists, the fourth-generation Japanese-American, whose family owns a strawberry farm in Orange County, emphasized food safety is a number one priority in California.
"We take it very seriously, and it is our foundation for which every other program is built," he said.
"Recently, the strawberry industry in California received an outstanding safety leadership award because we developed some training programs, some language-neutral tools that help us show some very simple concepts on proper hand wash, proper daily procedures," he said.
Japan's hothouse strawberry industry produces in the winter and early spring. As the California industry produces virtually year-round, it can easily complement the local market here, Murai said.
"You will be able to integrate, hopefully, California strawberry into your business plan," he said.
Studies show strawberries help battle heart disease, high blood pressure, may help with insulin resistance and are a low glycemic food, so they may reduce the risk of diabetes.
They contain many important nutrients such as vitamin C, fiber, and potassium, as well as bio-active phenolic compounds, or antioxidants. These are in many cases unique to the strawberry, commission vice president of marketing Chris Christian said.
In an interview after the seminar, Murai told Capital Press some farmers are very attuned to the global market, and the Japanese market adds diversity to their business plans.
"We're trying to give support to our farmers who are trying to enter this market," he said.
Christian said a flood of produce appears in the U.S. market in the summer, so Japan provides an alternative for California strawberry growers. Milton Marketing president Scott Hitchman, the commission's Japan representative, said the challenge now is to broaden the use of strawberries, traditionally considered a winter fruit here.
"We had success both in the food service and the retail sector last year, and we expect more success this year," he said.
California exported 19 million pounds of strawberries in 2009, for a value of $31 million, Christian said. "Our exports are up 30 percent in 2009 compared to 2008," Hitchman said.
And the window for exporting California strawberries here, traditionally from September to the first week of November, enlarged last year. "We've successfully opened up from July," Hitchman said.