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Effects from the pandemic on US perishables and exports

In 2019, the August through November Washington State apple harvest yielded a record 133.9 million 40-pd boxes of fruit. Yet fewer apple exports have been exported via the ports of Seattle and Tacoma since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Washington usually exports around 30% of its apple production to more than 60 countries world-wide.

As with many changes to the trade environment this year, the virus is thought to be responsible. “The feedback we’ve received is that there has been an increase in domestic demand,” said Georgette Reidburn, business development manager at the Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA), which includes both ports. “More people are eating lunch at home and not going out for dinner, so instead of the apples going out internationally, there has been increased local consumption.”

The COVID lockdown and the subsequent stay-at-home lifestyle appear to have had an impact on Washington apple exports. Even as the economy has reopened to varying degrees, there are fewer opportunities to eat out and widespread public acceptance of spending more time at home, especially for meals. That’s going to have an impact on perishables trade patterns. Separately, distribution of the coming COVID-19 vaccines will present logistical challenges to the cold chain.

Broadening fruit horizons
Since more people are eating more meals at home, they are also willing to and interested in a greater variety of fresh fruit. Eric Casey, CEO of GT USA Wilmington, a unit of Gulftainer that has been running the Port of Wilmington since 2018, has noticed growth opportunities for imports of new varieties of fruit as the pandemic proceeds, and in its aftermath.

“We expect growth in the switch to specialized grapes,” said Casey. “Most Americans are familiar with Thompson seedless table grapes. Now we are seeing different varieties and different flavors from Chile and elsewhere starting to garner interest from American consumers. They are opening their taste buds and are becoming more experimental.”

Banana volumes down
On the other hand, banana imports in Wilmington shrank since COVID arrived. The likely reason, according to Casey: bananas are popular in kids’ lunchboxes, but, since fewer are going to school, parents have eased up on banana buying.

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