“There’s a lot of room for growth” in blueberries, says USHBC
March 28, 2014

The International Blueberry Organization (IBO) held its biggest annual conference yet last week in Guadalajara, Mexico, where representatives from around the world discussed the key trends facing this ‘health halo’ crop. Once the talks were wrapped up, www.freshfruitportal.com spoke with US Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC) chair Parm Bains about expectations for international demand growth, while Imalinx marketing director Inés Masallach gave a snapshot of the Mexican market.blues10

Bains said it was “amazing” to visit a blueberry operation owned by Berries Paradise as part of the conference, in a part of the world where before “nobody really thought blueberries could grow”.

“But nobody thought we could grow blueberries in California either,” said Bains, who is also CEO of British Columbia-based Westberry Farms.

“It’s all the breeding work that’s been going on that’s allowed for these border regions to now start growing blueberries, and become a major player globally. I think you’re going to see that in Mexico in the next 10-15 years.”

He added evergreening was also useful in Mexico for the Biloxi blueberry variety, which allowed growers to cater production to specific periods of higher need.

“You can manipulate it to produce fruit almost year-round, but you can also manipulate it to only give you fruit during that time of year that there is no overlap from other regions.”

However, it is not only exports that are supporting Mexico’s blueberry industry. Masallach highlighted a substantial growth in the country’s consumption in recent years, which still shows a lot of potential.

“Per capita consumption has changed in the last five years. When the per capita consumption of blueberries in Mexico was measured for the first time, we were at 19 grams,” she said.

“Last year, we were in 26 grams, which doesn’t seem like much, but really it’s a 37% increase in consumption per capita, which means not all is being exported.”

She said that with the support of communication programs with the media, foodservice and retail, Mexico’s per capita consumption could grow to reach 40 grams in the next three to four years.

“One advantage Mexico has is that it has the necessary microclimates to have different seasons in blueberries, but in terms of being able to supply all year, thanks to globalization, we basically have a continuous availability combining with Chile and the United States.

The volume is there, so now the key challenge will be to clarify the fruit’s name. As the Spanish word for blueberry, ‘arándano’, is more associated with cranberries in Mexico, the fruit goes under many monikers such as ‘arándano azul’ (blue cranberry) or ‘mora azul’ (blue blackberry).

Masallach said communication campaigns would target two types of potential consumers: the well-informed who are simply health conscious and also like to experience tasty food, but also those affected by Mexico’s childhood obestiy epidemic.

“You cannot forget that Mexico is the number one country for indices of childhood obesity, and obesity is one of the main causes of death in Mexico,” she said.

“We have a group of people who have to live with this suffering, and they are always looking for natural alternatives to be able to live with this disease, or enjoy some foods a bit more.”

Raising consumption in North America and Asia

While Mexico has experienced substantial growth in its internal blueberry market, this is but a blip on total growth forecasts for the fruit. Bains forecast an average of 5-6% production growth in the U.S. and Canada over the next few years, emphasizing the industry would need to keep demand ahead of supply.

“In 2013 we were at around 660 million pounds, and in 2012 it was around 590 million pounds, so you can see the growth,” he said.

“We have been able to increase consumption per capita from 17 ounces to over 39 ounces, and that’s because of that health halo; all the health benefit research that’s been done.

“The original work was done in the late 1990s, when the first paper came out about the high antioxidant levels of blueberries. We as an industry have never looked back – we continue to do that work, and the health halo has that driver.”

He said consumer surveys showed 99.2% of the U.S. population associated blueberries with being healthy.

“There is a fair amount of opportunity for us to grow the domestic market. We feel that it’s underdeveloped.

“We also feel that the offshore market is underdeveloped. Our goal by 2015 we want to be exceeding 50 ounces per capita consumption, and increase our offshore market potential by more than 10-15%.”

Bains pointed to significant potential in Japan outside major cities, along with other Asian countries such as China, South Korea and India.

“If you look at Japan, it’s our largest overseas market, yet if you look within Japan a lot of the awareness around blueberries with health is around Osaka and Tokyo. We need to start raising that awareness in the other regions of Japan.

“When you talk about a patient visiting his doctor in Japan, the saying is the doctor often recommends ‘have a couple of blueberries, it’s good for your eyesight’. You have billboards of baseball pitchers saying to have blueberries for good eyesight.

“So we need to continue to spread that message, and in countries like China that has a lot of acreage but the production isn’t there. That’s good for us and for them, to be able to start domestically promoting blueberries and creating that awareness.”

He noted that obviously not everyone would have the means to consume blueberries in China, and the same is the case in India.

“You’re looking at 1.3 billion people in China. We know not everybody will have that buying capacity, but even if you look at the 10-20% of that population, and of India’s population, there’s a lot of room for growth.”

He said India was a very new market for blueberries, but it had been identified as a key area of potential four years ago and the USHBC appointed Raj Kapoor as a country representative in Delhi.

“I travel a lot through India. You pick up a magazine or a publication and there’s invariably a story on blueberries, and culturally in China or in Asia overall, they’re very strong on connecting health with food.

“When we assessed the potential of India as an upcoming opportunity for us, we felt the best way to get started was to appoint a country rep. Having him there, he will attend trade shows on behalf of the USHBC.

“He will talk to chefs and do demos, work with the foodservice industry. Right now, the USHBC sent over some frozen blueberries to allow the industrial-foodservice sector, and food product developers, to work with blueberries and help them with new product development.”

He said blueberry consumption growth in India would be slow and steady, but “will come to fruition over time”.

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