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Thailand’s Mangosteen And Mango Exports Will Increase Irradiated Presence

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 28, 2007

When the Pundit ran a piece announcing the availability of mangos from India, we received numerous calls and letters looking for a source of supply.

Now The New York Times published a piece pointing out that mangosteens and mangos will soon be available from Thailand:

FRESH mangosteens and mangoes from Thailand will soon be available in the United States, the Agriculture Department has decided. Those fruits — as well as fresh pineapples, rambutans, litchis and longans — had been barred as imports from Thailand because they could harbor harmful insects, but will be allowed in when irradiated at low doses to kill or sterilize the pests.

The new rule, published by the department last Wednesday, is effective July 23. But it will take longer for department inspectors to approve the irradiation and packing facilities and procedures. The first fruit should arrive around September, said Rapibhat Chandarasrivongs, the agricultural minister-counselor at the Thai Embassy in Washington.

Thailand is the world’s largest producer of various tropical fruits, including pineapples, rambutans and mangosteens, but it’s unclear whether American shoppers will pay enough for them to cover the cost of shipping them by air, the best way to ensure freshness. The legendary taste of the mangosteen, so far virtually unavailable fresh in the United States, makes it the one most likely to be eagerly sought here despite the cost.

Canada, which is too cold to worry about tropical pests, imports small amounts of Thai fruit by air, but Thai exporters are hoping to send larger quantities to the United States by sea, Mr. Chandarasrivongs said. Most of the mangoes will probably be green, to be eaten firm like a vegetable, he added.

The effects of the sea voyage, which takes some 20 days, remain to be seen. Irradiated rambutans, longans and litchis flown from Hawaii to the United States mainland have been of high quality, but irradiation may affect the fruits from Thailand in different ways….

These items, successful or not, are unlikely to dramatically alter the shape of the produce department.

The broader significance is that more and more tropicals are now being treated with irradiation.

We are not certain the general public has much concern in this area. The irradiated hamburger at Wegmans, which we mentioned here and here, seems to sell fine. And we can say that no trade buyer who called the Pundit about the Indian mangos showed any concern when we pointed out the product was irradiated.

Whatever residual concerns may exist, a few years of eating these irradiated tropicals without incident is likely to raise consumer comfort levels considerably.

Which raises two points:

First, we really need to push for approval on irradiation for fresh-cut products. This is where the industry has had big food safety problems, and this is where we need a kill step. Whether the whole industry will switch is a question mark that will be determined over a long period of time, but there is little reason to doubt that there is going to be a sufficient market for someone to produce a line of irradiated bagged salads and spinach and sell it to a niche market, just as organic or kosher have markets.

Second, as irradiation becomes more common, it is bound to be applied to more popular commodities. This means the U.S. produce market of the future will be more like that of Canada than what we have been used to as America has had so many phytosanitary restrictions. Now, the only issue will be the cost of irradiation. With steady volume, that won’t be much of a barrier to entry.

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