US fruit imports moving south

US fruit imports moving south

With the pending expansion to the Port of Savannah of a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program, three southern U.S. ports will be able to receive South American blueberries and grapes.

Beginning Sept. 1, citrus fruits, grapes and blueberries from South America can enter the U.S. market through the Port of Savannah, as long as the shipments have been chilled for at least 17 days prior to entry to protect against the transmission of fruit flies.

The Georgia port has been added to a pilot program that started last September that allowed blueberries and grapes from Peru and Uruguay to be handled at ports in South Florida. The program will continue in Miami and Port Everglades during the coming season, the USDA said. For decades, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had required the fruit to enter at U.S. ports above the 39th parallel — which cuts through the center of the country — to protect domestic crops from being infested.

Traditionally, South American produce that required cold treatment was shipped to Philadelphia. Any of the fruit sold in the southern U.S. was then trucked to its destination. Florida port officials say the direct shipments get produce in the state’s grocery stores five days sooner than if shipped to Philadelphia and trucked south.

The impact on Philadelphia and the southern ports was minimal during the first year of the experiment. Miami, for example, has handled only 16 40-foot-equivalent-unit containers of Peruvian grapes since the pilot started last September, along with a smaller number of blueberry shipments, according to the port.

Still, officials at Miami and Port Everglades are optimistic about their reefer potential, and new infrastructure will support the growth. A new intermodal rail facility opened in July at Port Everglades. Officials say importers will be able to get fruit to Midwestern consumers more quickly by shipping into Port Everglades and sending shipments north or west by express intermodal trains.

In Miami, several new private facilities have sprung up, including the South Florida Logistics Center opened by Flagler Global Logistics. Since opening its refrigerated storage space last October, the center has handled blueberries, asparagus, citrus, apples, avocados, ginger, Chilean grapes and flowers.

Crowley Maritime and its Customized Brokers subsidiary expect APHIS to expand the items allowed to enter the ports after cold treatment. Nelly Yunta, vice president of Customized Brokers, said the company hopes to broaden the scope of fresh produce imports to include Peruvian citrus, apples and pears from Uruguay, and blueberries from Argentina.

The cold treatment pilot program falls right into the operational playbook at Savannah, where port officials are prioritizing refrigerated and frozen imports and exports. Reefer shipments at Savannah have increased during the past five years, according to port data. In 2013, the port handled 138,607 TEUs of refrigerated cargo, up from 102,875 TEUs in 2009.