CA strawberries clear Olympic hurdle

August 8, 2008 1:07:34 PM PDT
With one food preference survey, China's Olympic athletes accomplished something the California Strawberry Commission and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had been trying to achieve for years: getting U.S.-grown supplies of the fruit into communist China. The first 450-pound supply of American strawberries ever exported legally to China arrived in Beijing on Wednesday after members of the Chinese Olympic team listed strawberries as the No. 3 fruit they would like to eat during the Summer Games starting Friday.

Since China's short strawberry season ends in late spring, Chinese officials looked for help from California, where strawberries grow year-round.

Chinese inspectors spent 12 hours going over 50 trays of berries before allowing them to proceed to the Olympic Village, said Mary DeGroat of the California Strawberry Commission.

"It truly is a historic moment for us," DeGroat said moments after the industry group's executive director called to say the shipment was accepted.

Much of the chosen fruit came from a one-acre patch in Watsonville that company officials and picking crews from California Giant Berry Farms combed on Saturday looking for picture-perfect berries to include in the debut export. The company, along with neighboring Driscoll's berries, split the job of filling the order.

"We told the crews to make them look nice," said Jerry Moran, a Cal-Giant bush berry manager. "They took a little more time collecting the right fruit, picking the right size, the right color and berries with good shape."

After the strawberries were placed in plastic clamshells and stacked in the company's signature cardboard boxes with giant red berries printed on the side, Chinese officials required one extra touch: a label reading "Export to the People's Republic of China."

The berries were trucked to Los Angeles International Airport for the 14-hour flight to Beijing. To keep them cool on the commercial flight, the pallets of berries were wrapped in thermal insulation blankets.

"The time period is not so much different as it would be shipping from here to Chicago," said Cindy Jewell, director of marketing for Cal-Giant. "We wanted to make sure they stayed cool so they would arrive in the best possible quality."

The first shipment of strawberries was destined for the Olympic Village, the U.S. High Performance Center and USA House, where dignitaries such as President Bush will be entertained, DeGroat said. Some were sent with long stems, making them suitable for dipping in chocolate.

The strawberry commission has been working to negotiate a trade agreement, which DeGroat said has taken as long as 12 years with other commodities. The athletes, however, helped cut the red tape.

Schwarzenegger had also pushed California strawberries during a 2005 trade mission to Beijing.

Now that the strawberry commission has passed its first test, the group is awaiting its next Olympic order due this week.

California growers are keeping their fingers crossed that the great wall blocking their products from a potential 1.3 billion consumers will come down.

"We aren't assuming or presuming anything," DeGroat said, "but it certainly is our hope."

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