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Chile already emerging from earthquake: groups may petition USDA

by Tad Thompson | March 01, 2010
PHILADELPHIA - While the Chilean fruit industry has been seriously disrupted by the 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Feb. 27, some fruit exporters were loading fruit onto ships as soon as the afternoon of Feb. 28.

In a March 1 e-mail to The Produce News, Mark Greenberg, chief executive officer of Fisher Capespan, said, "Communication out of Chile is hit-and- miss. Telephone and Internet lines are coming back to normal. Cell phone service as well."

Mr. Greenberg continued, "All of our exporters and growers are reporting that they are safe and unharmed, although there has been infrastructural damage that will affect shipping for the next few weeks. The main road that links the southern growing areas to the port of Valparaiso has been compromised, but there are alternatives."

Mr. Greenberg indicated that the primary fruit seaport of Valparaiso "is partially operational and we expect that there will be some loading of fresh produce this week, but it will be limited. Electricity has been a major issue although many cold storages are equipped with gasoline generators to allow them to keep operating until normal power returns. But this is not a perfect solution and will slow down the process of shipping. As well, a number of exporters are reporting damage to their cooling and warehousing facilities and they are working valiantly to become operational once again. Logistics will be the biggest issue: Fuel for power generators and truck transport is scarce as distribution has been impacted. Even bunkering fuel for ships will be a challenge. I expect that things will be very slow this week as all struggle to become operational once again. Next week, I imagine that we will see something that is starting to look a little more like normal. By Week 11, I am hopeful that the Chilean exporters will be close to fully operational."

Robert Palaima, president of Delaware River Stevedores Inc., which manages Philadelphia's Tioga Marine Fruit Terminal, who is also the president of the Chilean & American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia, told The Produce News March 1 that he had been in contact with Chilean fruit grower Alberto Feres of Iridio S.A., who related, "We are starting with the harvest of the grapes" south of Santiago. This harvest "means an important volume -- I'd say between 50 and 60 percent of the total Chilean production."

Mr. Feres indicated that soon after the earthquake, activity "slowly came back to the original program." Many workers suffered serious damage or destruction of their homes. "Nevertheless I'm convinced that we will see the normal activity in a couple of days."

Mr. Feres said that the port of Valparaiso was loading ships by Sunday afternoon, Feb. 28.

San Antonio, a very significant Chilean seaport south of Valparaiso, also experienced "some operational problems, they expect to restart activity today (March 1) as well," Mr. Feres said, adding that roads to the ports had minor problems, but trucks could reach the ports on March 1 with small delays.

A March 1 press release from ASOEX - the Santiago-based Chilean Exporters Association -- indicated that Chile's port in Coquimbo was functioning normally.

Mr. Palaima said that when fruit industry damage assessments from the earthquake are complete, the Chilean & American Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia may work in tandem with ASOEX to delay the April 10 U.S. Department of Agriculture deadline for importing certain varieties of Chilean grapes. The USDA requires that Chilean grapes arriving after April 10 must meet higher quality standards that are more difficult to achieve.

Mr. Palaima said the reason for asking for an easing of restrictions would be to provide help for Chilean exporters who are suffering losses due to the earthquake. Extending the season for receiving large volumes of Chilean fruit will also increase jobs for dockworkers in the United States - work that would be lost if Chilean fruit volumes are curtailed. If there is a request for a marketing order standards exception in 2010, the degree of the exception will be in relation to the damage assessment by ASOEX.