Blueberry Consumers Trending Younger As Overall Consumption Rises In U.S.

Unlike Rest Of Industry, Blueberry’s Health Pitch Has Fueled Production And Demand

By Jim Prevor, Editor-in-Chief, Produce Business

President Reagan’s economic program was ridiculed by some as “supply-side” economics. The Keynesian view, which was conventional wisdom at the time, was to supercharge demand — expecting businesses to keep up, to employ people and to get the economy going.

Although President Reagan never used the “supply side” term, his program was deemed to be focused on creating investment incentives. The theory was that new products and services created their own demand. So it is with blueberries.

Without question, consumption has boomed. Though some of this growth was facilitated by increases in U.S. production, which grew steadily — from 80 million pounds of fresh harvest in 2000 to 281 million pounds in 2012 (according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Services) — the explosion in production came from the Southern Hemisphere — with Chile alone going from 6 million pounds in 2000 to 117 million pounds in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Commerce).

Fifteen years ago, there was virtually no Southern Hemisphere blueberry production. Today, about half of the blueberry consumption in the U.S. is supplied by imports, and both Peru and Mexico are expected to boom in the future.

Obviously, few people would plant blueberries or look to establish a Southern Hemisphere blueberry industry if they didn’t believe the demand would be there, but it is also true that the year-round volume secured year-round shelf-space at retail and funded enhanced promotion. Indeed the decision to go to a mandatory assessment for research and promotion for the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council was driven, in no small part, by projections of massive increases in blueberry production, which motivated the industry to work hard on increasing consumption.

The blueberry health pitch is also somewhat distinct from that of the produce industry at large. Much of the trade’s health focus is built around the idea that eating more produce means eating less of other things and that this change in eating habits will reduce obesity as well as obesity-related health issues. Our industry’s overall health focus is not built on any specific health claim related to produce. That is why no specific mix of produce need be promoted; it is just that “More Matters!”

When you have a fruit that is delicious, available year-around, very convenient to eat, and it supposedly has so many benefits, it is not surprising that consumption keeps rising. It is all upside and no downside.

New technology from companies such as Naturipe even brought blueberries into the seasonal oatmeal selection at McDonald’s. The plan is to bring blueberries into greater use in foodservice — where sales growth has lagged compared to retail.

The blueberry success is an incredible story, but it is hard to know what the lesson is for the rest of the produce industry. Many items that we need boosted in consumption are bitter greens and don’t have the natural appeal of sweet fruits such as blueberries. Many items need to be cooked or are large and bulky. They are not the perfect snack size like the blueberry.

Perhaps some new research would help to find specific health benefits, but it is not clear to what extent these specific benefits drive consumption, as opposed to a general perception that blueberries are good for you, tasty and convenient.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg quality to the blueberry story. The demographics of usage has broadened — well it is hard to imagine that the demographics of consumption would not change if the market was to absorb such enormous increase in production. More people report they ate blueberries within the past 30 days. Well isn’t that part of year-round production keeping blueberries on the shelf 52 weeks a year in every supermarket? In addition, though 57 percent of consumers have seen news stories about the healthfulness of blueberries, causality is not proven.

The key issue is that a well-received product met an opportunity to become a year-round item. The transition led to more year-round shelf space and the adoption of new habits, say putting blueberries on oatmeal rather than bananas. This fortuitously happened in a well-organized industry that was prepared to invest in expanding demand and researching technology to boost usage.

One thing we don’t have evidence of is that increased consumption of blueberries has led to greater overall produce consumption. That’s a research study that would be well worth doing.