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Irradiated Mangos Arrive From India

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 4, 2007

The New York Times ran a piece entitled A Luscious Taste and Aroma From India Arrives at Last, which reports that Alphonso and Kesar mangos from India — long spoken of almost reverently for their exceptional flavor — are now inching toward general availability in the U.S.:

The first legal shipment of Indian mangoes to the United States in decades landed at Kennedy Airport last Friday, probably the most eagerly anticipated fruit delivery ever.

“If we can get them at good ripeness,” said Suvir Saran, executive chef of the Indian restaurant Dévi in Manhattan, “people will go mad for the beautiful, supple flesh and intense flavor.”

Some Indian-Americans have spent hundreds of dollars at an auction in Miami for rare Florida-grown Indian mango varieties; flown home specially for the season; or tried to smuggle illicit fruit past airport inspectors, striving to recapture rapturous memories of their homeland’s luscious, incomparable mangoes. Until now, though, most could only crave and dream.

The hold-up on importing mangos from India has been phytosanitary. Specifically the dreaded mango seed weevil, which we don’t have in North America and which the USDA is intent on keeping out of the country. Though India applied to start exporting mangos to the U.S. almost 20 years ago, the problem seemed insurmountable:

A solution emerged in January 2006, when the Agriculture Department allowed the importation of produce treated with low doses of irradiation to kill or sterilize insects — a somewhat controversial issue.

The President of the United States expressed his support:

On a visit to India five weeks later, President George W. Bush cheered the news as he announced a pact on nuclear energy and trade. “The United States is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes,” he said.

The fact that these mangos are irradiated will attract some attention:

Some public health advocates oppose irradiation of produce, claiming that it causes harmful chemicals, but this use has not yet become as contentious as irradiation of meat, which applies a higher dose and serves a different purpose, to sterilize bacteria. The Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization endorse food irradiation as safe.

Dozens of studies have found that the effects of irradiation on mango quality vary markedly by dose, variety and ripeness at treatment. Overall, the process delays ripening, extends shelf life, and is gentler than the hot water dip used on most imported mangoes to kill pests.

Whether or not Indian mango imports succeed commercially, it seems likely that irradiation will soon become a common treatment for many tropical fruits.

Facilities in Hawaii and Florida that treat modest quantities of produce have been the primary irradiated sources for the United States so far, but a huge Mexican irradiation facility is expected to start operation in a year. Arved Deecke, general manager of Phytosan, the company building the plant, said irradiation will be cheaper than the hot water dip, and that he plans to treat a quarter of Mexican mango exports by 2012. Thailand likely will be sending irradiated fruit to the United States within a year, and several other countries have applied to do it or have inquired about it.

This piece is an interesting juxtaposition of two separate stories. On the one hand, we have the story of a new import adding excitement to the mango category. Mangos are one of the few fruits with major breakthrough potential in the U.S., and we finally have an industry infrastructure through the National Mango Board that is working steadily to build demand. We also have innovative private approaches, such as Ciruli Brothers and its brand building efforts for The Champagne Mango. Now this new entrant is attracting attention in The New York Times.

On the other hand, this story is about irradiation. With the plethora of food safety concerns and the conviction by many in produce that a “kill step” is needed, irradiation has received much attention. We’ve dealt with it many times, including here.

Although there is always concern about consumer response, in the past, that has not been a problem.

It may get easier as the FDA is looking at alternatives for labeling irradiated foods when the foods are not “materially changed” by irradiation. The use of terms such as “cold pasteurization” and the elimination of the requirement that irradiated foods carry the Radura symbol are all under consideration.

In any case, the Indian mangos are the vanguard of many more irradiated items to come. U.S. treaty obligations basically require us to accept science-based treatments such as irradiation.

Virtually all spices are now irradiated, many stores sell irradiated hamburger patties and more and more tropicals will be irradiated.

Looking at both the mango and the process, nothing seems to bother an ace marketer such as Frieda’s, who has this to say about the promotional opportunity in Indian mangos:

INDIA GROWN MANGOES — The much-publicized first Mangoes out of India have just arrived in the States. The first shipment is committed to the White House … sorry but to quote Mel Brooks “it’s good to be the King.” Our Grower/Exporter is at the White House today (5/1/07) meeting with the Indian Ambassador and the Bush team.

Call your Frieda Account Manager if you want to be among the first to offer Mangoes from India to your shoppers. During the first test season, most of the volume will arrive via air shipment. The focus will be on the Alphonso and Kesar varieties only. We are still working out the details (pack, price and quantity for air shipments).

Indian Mangoes are irradiated. This preserves the flavor and actually improves the shelf life of the fruit. Get in line now to pre-book orders!!!!

Although The New York Times article expresses concern over the high cost of air freight, first-year volumes will probably go heavily to retailers who serve Indian expatriates and emigrants as well as Indian restaurants. And they will ante up for this long dreamt-of treat.

Long term, they will find ways to ship by sea; then a whole new market will open up — unless Mexico figures out how to grow these varieties with the flavor Indians always mention.

Congratulations to Bhaskar Savani, who owns a chain of dental clinics near Philadelphia, but whose family grows the mangos back in India, for making an Indian-American dream come true.

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