The Miami Herald / April 1, 1997
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES, Costa Rica -- Just outside the scenic town of Buenos Aires, Del Monte Fresh Produce is trying something new: the development of a sweeter, more delicious pineapple that could revolutionize pineapple sales and bring more export dollars to Costa Rica's troubled economy.
The yellowish, hybrid fruit is called Del Monte Gold, and contains four to five times more Vitamin C than conventional pineapples. More than two million boxes of it have already been shipped from Costa Rica this year, compared to three million boxes of the regular champaka variety. The Del Monte Gold pineapple retails at $3.50 to $3.99 a pound on selected U.S. supermarket shelves, about $1 higher than normal pineapples.
"We've dedicated ourselves to very serious research to develop this technology," said Rodrigo Jimenez, general manager of Pindeco, Del Monte's Costa Rican pineapple subsidiary, during a tour of the company's vast operations. "We hope to replace the traditional variety with Del Monte Gold over the next four years."
In 1996, Del Monte alone exported 29 million boxes of bananas, five million boxes of pineapples and three million boxes of melons -- an incredible 10% of Costa Rica's total exports by value including textiles, furniture and electronics.
Yet Del Monte will soon have company. In February, Dole Fresh Fruit International Ltd. announced it would close its unprofitable pineapple plantations in the Dominican Republic and concentrate its production in Costa Rica. In 1996, Dole sold 2.1 million boxes of pineapples overseas, up from 1.4 million boxes in 1995. Sales are expected to reach 2.5 million boxes this year.
Alvaro Monge, a commercial adviser to the Foreign Trade Ministry, said Dole's impending move to Costa Rica could make his country the world's biggest pineapple exporter. It's already the world's second-largest banana exporter (after Ecuador).
According to the latest government figures available, agriculture accounted for $833.8 million in Costa Rican exports between January and July 1996. In fact, says Jorge Arturo Sauma, general manager of San Jose-based Corporacion Bananera Nacional, bananas are now Costa Rica's No. 2 source of foreign exchange after tourism. In 1995, the country exported 112 million boxes, dropping to 106 million boxes in 1996.
Projected zero growth for 1997 and the country's growing foreign debt concern officials. Private economic consulting firms predict the economy will shrink by 1% in 1997, though more optimistic forecasters see 1.5% growth if measures to control the debt are adopted.
Meanwhile, in Buenos Aires, 1,400 of the town's 7,000 or so inhabitants work for Del Monte, earning an average $1.50 an hour plus fringes. The company's 3,000-hectare pineapple plantation contains around 225 million pineapple plants, generating 75% of the country's pineapple shipments to the United States and Europe. In 1996, Del Monte reported $45 million in export earnings; in 1997, that number should rise to $50 million.
No wonder the government is doing all it can to encourage companies like Del Monte to invest in new products, technologies and varieties.
"We think Del Monte Gold has great potential in countries like France and the United States," said Jimenez, a 15-year veteran of Del Monte, adding that "next year, we'll start making concentrate pineapple juice for the U.S. and European markets."
Not all of Del Monte's ventures are as successful. In late 1992 -- after eight years of research, $2 million in investment and endless bickering with the U.S. government and local indigenous groups -- Del Monte pulled out of the Costa Rican papaya export business for good. Jimenez said it just didn't make sense to keep fighting with the USDA, which kept Costa Rican papayas out of the U.S. market, ostensibly because of the possibility of fruit-fly infestation, following pressure from Hawaiian papaya growers worried about low-cost competition from Central America.