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Florida growers ponder the future of white grapefruit

by Chip Carter | February 18, 2010
In 1999, U.S. consumption of grapefruit reached an all-time high. A decade later, totals stand at half that glorious peak. One-third of growers have abandoned production in the past 10 years, and some even question the future of white grapefruit as a viable commodity.

What happened?

The Florida citrus industry would love a simple answer to that question. While grapefruit sales overall have plummeted - 80 percent of Americans never touch the stuff. The bottom has literally dropped out of the market for white grapefruit.

In 1988-89, Florida growers produced 23 million boxes of colored grapefruit and 27 million boxes of white. Ten years later, growers shipped 28 million cases of pink and red grapefruit and 17 million cases of white. By last year, after a decade of hurricanes, disease and foreign competition, those totals had dropped to 15 million boxes of pinks and reds and 6.6 million boxes of whites.

"I have done several blind taste tests -- with the consumer literally blindfolded -- of white, pink and red grapefruit," said David Mixon, chief marketing officer for citrus giant Seald Sweet International in Vero Beach, FL. "In every case, consumers have preferred the taste of white grapefruit. Every time."

Then why does a majority of the Florida fresh white grapefruit crop wind up in Japan, the last remaining solid market for the crop? Is it a matter of taste? Or of perception?

Michael Sparks, vice president and chief executive officer of Florida Citrus Mutual, said that U.S. consumers prefer pink and red grapefruit because they have been trained to do so by a variety of factors -- including aggressive marketing by grapefruit producers.

In 1929, a deep red fruit was discovered on a tree in a Texas pink grapefruit grove. Growers recognized a marketing gift when they saw it. The Ruby Red was the first grapefruit cultivar to receive a U.S. patent. Since then, the industry's marketing efforts have been firmly focused on promoting ever- redder versions of the fruit, typically from cultivars that are genetic mutations triggered by irradiation.

But there was one other factor that may have played an even larger role in white grapefruit's decline. In 1989, researchers first noticed an interesting phenomenon that affected users of some prescription drugs who were also consumers of white grapefruit: They died.

The news startled the pharmaceutical and citrus industries. Further research showed that an enzyme in grapefruit -- and particularly in white grapefruit - - inhibited clearance of certain drugs by the liver, resulting in sustained and potentially toxic plasma levels.

The interaction was easily curtailed by dosage timing, but consumers did not heed that message. Doctors and pharmacists began giving verbal warnings about potential interactions. Patients repeated that information to friends, with the end result becoming a pharmaceutical version of the parlor game "telephone": by the time news traveled three or four degrees away, the message was mangled. Eventually, the warning wound up on prescription labels, which served to heighten the confusion.

"Once that warning got on the prescription label, it was all over," Mr. Sparks said. "The village is full of idiots. Grapefruit took a material, heavy hit on that. And don't forget grapefruit primarily worked well with the palate of our older generation. When they got a note from their doctor [about possible interactions], they just stopped in a heartbeat -- including my own father. I think our marketing program has lessened the effect … but my father still sees that his prescription says 'do not take with grapefruit juice' so he won't. It's quite a challenge." Mr. Sparks likened the misperception to current woes the pork industry is facing in the wake of the H1N1 strain of flu currently circling the globe. Many people call it swine flu. Pork producers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture wish they would not. As difficult as it may be to believe, some people mistakenly believe that swine flu can be transmitted by pork consumption - thus the official emphasis on referring to the strain as H1N1.

"Drug interaction has been a continual downward pressure on consumption of grapefruit," Mr. Mixon said. "Without a doubt, it's a major, major issue." "White grapefruit is a very good-eating piece of fruit," said Kevin Swords, Florida citrus sales manager for DNE World Fruit Sales in Ft. Stuart, FL. "Consumers are missing out."

White grapefruit is "a high-quality -- excellent quality -- fruit, as the Asian market shows," Mr. Sparks said. "Have we spoiled [the U.S. market] with the pinks and the reds? Is there room for combination - pushing white to use with red and pink in fruit salads and the like? You would think so. But as we've struggled with grapefruit juice and poor returns, this might be one of those supply-and-demand things. There's nothing wrong with the product. It's a great piece of fruit."

The industry has fought back. Marketing campaigns focus on dieters and health benefits, while educational efforts continue to spread the actual truth about drug interactions. Both to little avail.

So at what point does it become pointless to continue flogging the U.S. white grapefruit market?

"White grapefruit won't grow for North America unless there's an interest, and that interest will only come with effective marketing," Mr. Mixon said. "It's all in how much money you can spend for marketing and return-on- investment."

Mr. Mixon noted that there are pockets in the northeastern United States where whites are still popular "because they know what white grapefruit is: less pigmentation means more flavor."

About one-third of Florida grapefruit growers have walked away from the crop in the last decade. About 1,000 are left in the business.

"Demand exceeds supply for export" of white grapefruit, Mr. Mixon said. "We could sell more if we had it. We just don't have the acreage in the ground. We're at a stage where even if we had a bumper year, we could not meet demand."

"Marketing grapefruit is a challenge, and white even more so on the domestic side," said Mr. Swords. "We have research people working on that end, but perceptions make it a challenge. We're doing a lot of thinking outside the box. But Japan is what's keeping the white grapefruit grower in business."

About 90 percent of the fresh white grapefruit and juice sold in Japan comes from Florida, representing more than half the state's production. Typhoons in 1990-91 wiped out most of that season's Japanese citrus crop. A bumper crop of Florida whites resulted in an overage to ship to a market that literally had no other fruit. The Florida white grapefruit in taste and appearance was a perfect fit for discriminating Japanese consumers, and the rest was history.

The Florida Department of Citrus is working with manufacturers and distributors in Japan to introduce new food, beverage and cosmetic products containing Florida grapefruit or juice, including value-added peeled grapefruit, grapefruit salad dressings, dessert menu items and cafeteria and restaurant products.

Would a similar approach work in the United States?

That is a question of taste. When it comes to white grapefruit, as one Florida citrus broker who requested anonymity told The Produce News, "Look, most people just don't like it."

And that is a problem no amount of marketing can overcome.

(For more on Florida citrus, see the Feb. 22, 2010, issue of The Produce News.)