The Packer / December 23, 1996
By Larry Luxner
GUATEMALA CITY -- One year ago, Guatemalan snow-pea exporters found themselves in the midst of controversy, when APHIS inspectors uncovered leaf-miner insect infestation in vegetables being shipped to the U.S. market.
This summer, Guatemalan produce exporters got another shock -- only this time the problem was cyclospora disease, and Central American raspberries were widely viewed as the culprit. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, about 850 people throughout the eastern United States and Canada mysteriously came down with cyclospora infection, which is caused by a microscopic parasite that infects the small intenstine and leads to watery diarrhea.
"There is a strong degree of evidence that imported raspberries were a factor in a large number of the outbreaks," said Bob Howard, a spokesman for the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases. Interestingly, however, no direct link to Guatemalan fruit was ever proven.
Since then, according to CDC and FDA officials, Guatemalan raspberries have shown no trace of the single-cell parasite, and exports have resumed with no problems.
"We exported in July and August without any problems, and our volumes have since doubled," said Rodolfo Quezada, general manager of Cumbre S.A. and president of the Guatemala Berry Commission, which was formed last year. "Sure the cyclospora contamination affected us, but we have taken a lot of measures such as implementing a hazard system throughout the industry that is almost unique in Latin America."
Jorge Méndez, assistant manager of the agribusiness committee at Gexpront -- Guatemala's association of non-traditional exporters -- said the damage to Guatemala's berry industry was mitigated by the fact that the crop was practically finished anyway.
"The fear we had was that U.S. consumers would reject Guatemalan products in the future," he told The Packer,"but we were able to control this with the technical cooperation of the FDA and the CDC."
Adds Todd Drennan, assistant agricultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City: "The industry was upset, but they understand that they do have some problems, and they're going to fix them."
Hardly a decade old, Guatemala's thriving berry-export business is due largely to the dry, cool climate and porous volcanic and sandy soils found in the country's western highlands, at between 1,100 and 1,800 meters above sea level. Nurtured by trickle or drip irrigation systems, the berries are grown the high-trellising method, which never allows fruit to touch the ground. After classification, the berries are packed, mostly in recyclable PETE clamshells,, placed in the highest-test carton flat to maintain quality, and flown by air cargo from Guatemala City to Miami, Houston, New York or Los Angeles.
At the moment, Guatemala is Latin America's largest blackberry exporter -- well ahead of Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica -- and its second-largest raspberry exporter after Chile. In 1996, Guatemala exported around $15 million worth of fresh berries and between $4 million and $6 million in frozen berries, providing direct employment to 10,000 people and indirect labor to 30,000 more.
Quezada says the country has an estimated 200 hectares of moras (blackberries) and 180 hectares of frambuesas (raspberries) under production in the central highlands departments of Guatemala, Chimaltenango and Sacatepéquez. Another 100 hectares should enter production in 1997, he said. About 80% of all Guatemalan berries are exported to the United States and Canada; the remaining 20% go to Europe.
The nation also cultivates 150 hectares of fresas (strawberries), but only a third of that goes to export. Blueberries aren't yet grown on a commercial scale here, though Quezada predicts that within four years, the country could be shipping 50,000 to 100,000 five-pound flats of blueberries per season. The idea is to take advantage of the window after Chile's blueberry season ends in March and just before Florida's starts in April.
Cumbre is Guatemala's largest berry exporter by far, accounting for 400,000 boxes (40%) of Guatemala's total exports of one million flats a year. It employs 1,000 people and owns six farms throughout the country, all of them around Antigua and Chichimaltenango and most of them converted from old coffee farms. The second-largest berry shipper is Hortifrut S.A., a Chilean company with around 15 hectares in Chimaltenango; among other large exporters are Cooperativa 4 Pinos, Impex S.A. and Frutesa.