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.
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
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
"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
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
"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-
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
"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
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