The Mexican pineapple industry recently concluded its best exporting season to the United States in recent memory, but it is already gearing up for an even a better year in 2012.
Emilio Lopez Turrent, president of Mexico’s pineapple-exporting association, known commonly by the acronym AMEP, and founder of his own grower-shipper operation, Pinacola, in Veracruz, said that the Mexican pineapple industry is on the rise and has the potential to become an even bigger factor in future years.
He said that pineapple consumption in the United States was around 808,000 metric tons in 2010 — about a 14 percent increase over the previous year. While Costa Rica is the leading supplier of pineapples to the United States, Mexico is growing in popularity as it has increased its production of the U.S.-friendly MD2 pineapple variety.
Mr. Turrent, along with Pablo Jimenez, the AMEP marketing consultant, recently discussed the growth and potential of the Mexican pineapple industry with The Produce News.
“Twenty years ago, Mexico was a major exporter of pineapples to the United States because of our location,” said Mr. Jimenez.
Mexico shipped the Sweet Cayenne variety largely to U.S. processors. Despite its name, Sweet Cayenne is not all that sweet and it has a limited shelf life, so its value was as a processing variety.
Mr. Jimenez said that as U.S. consumers’ preferences moved toward consumption of fresh varieties, the Mexican pineapple fell out of favor, replaced by the MD2 variety from both Hawaii and the burgeoning Costa Rican production.
Over the past two decades, the bigger, multi-national pineapple companies have largely abandoned Hawaii and relocated their pineapple- growing operations to Costa Rica and other Latin American countries.
Over this time period, some Mexican growers of the Sweet Cayenne pineapple did send some fruit into fresh channels in the United States, but it was not received very well and gave Mexico a bit of a bad reputation.
However, a decade ago a few Mexican growers, including Mr. Turrent’s Pinapola operation, began replacing their Sweet Cayenne variety with the MD2 for the expressed purpose of recapturing the U.S. market.
“We started selling into the United States about eight years ago, but our volume started about six years ago, and it is increasing every year,” he said.
Today, the MD2 still makes up only a small percentage of the Mexican production, but it is growing.
“It is very easy for a Mexican grower to switch from Sweet Cayenne to MD2,” said Mr. Turrent, adding that Mexican growers have the cultural expertise to make the switch, they just need the motivation.
He said that there are thousands of growers in Mexico that grow three to four acres of Sweet Cayennes and supplying the large demand in Mexico for pineapples.
Mexico’s per-capita consumption of pineapples is more than double that of the United States. There is a very good domestic market, with the Sweet Cayenne still the favored variety because of its half-century tradition as the variety of choice.
But Mt. Turrent said that the sweeter MD2 is making inroads in the domestic marketplace, and it makes sense that more and more growers will start producing that variety. It is more expensive to grow, but it also has a greater return because of the ability to sell the product to the U.S. market.
Mr. Turrent estimated that about 75 percent of Mexico’s production is still in Sweet Cayenne, with less than 10 percent of its total pineapple production sent to U.S. markets.
But pineapple growers from Mexico are intent on changing that percentage.
Mr. Jimenez said that the seven grower-shippers that have formed AMEP have established rigorous quality and food-safety standards to which they adhere and they have been certified by third-party auditors. Mr. Turrent said that those seven members, plus two non-members also growing the MD2, ship about 95 percent of the Mexican pineapples that end up in the U.S. market. Occasionally the less-desirable variety finds its way into the United States, he said, but AMEP is trying to nip those shipments in the bud through education.
“That’s why we launched our web site (ww.pineapplesfrommexico.com),” he said. “Anybody can go there and see who we are.”
He said that if a pineapple brand is not one of the ones on the web site, the buyer should be wary, and investigate the source.
As a point of explanation, Mr. Turrent said that AMEP members send no pineapple to the U.S. market that has a Brix level of less than 13.
“The Sweet Cayenne is often shipped at 9, 10 or 11 Brix,” he said.
As Mexican producers attempt to market to the United States, they face several challenges, according to Mr. Turrent. First and foremost is year-round availability. Traditionally, Mexican pineapples are produced in Veracruz and on the Gulf Coast, where a good crop of MD2s is produced from about February through April. That gives Mexico a window of opportunity in the United States, but not the year-round supply the market wants.
He said that to increase its marketing season, many AMEP growers are adding acreage on the Pacific side of the country to lengthen their season. He said that test plots are in the ground and have performed very well.
AMEP growers also have found it difficult to compete against Costa Rican pineapples when they lose their freight advantage. Mr. Turrent said that importers of Costa Rica pineapples can land them on the East Coast for a freight advantage.
“Our best markets are in the middle of the country,” he said.
As it moves forward, AMEP is planning to imitate the efforts of other Mexican commodity producers, such as Avocados from Mexico, by combining its resources and promoting its crop as an industry.
In the future, the group expects to explore opportunities of a single brand, but at this point each grower-shipper is selling its own label but also featuring the “Pineapples from Mexico” logo.