Long before dawn Tuesday, work crews at Cal-Fruit Co.'s loading dock at the Los Angeles Produce Market began the sudden push for citrus.
In the dark, workers strained behind hand trucks to wheel out tottering stacks of fruit crates to waiting trucks. Cal-Fruit forklifts whined around them, moving out pallets as quickly as they had been unloaded. By the time the sky lightened, row after row of plump grapefruits, oranges and lemons were ready for inspection at the edge of the dock.
Citrus, sighed Jim Iwamoto, the firm's fruit manager, was "the only way to go" in the wake of a sudden U.S. Food and Drug Administration decision to place a hold on all grapes, peaches, plums and nectarines imported from Chile because of a cyanide scare.
"We've got 15,000 boxes (worth between $180,000 and $210,000) from Chile just sitting in the warehouse right now," a frustrated Iwamoto said.
As the final hours of a rough day came to a close Tuesday morning, fruit dealers in the downtown produce district were still scrambling to avoid being stuck with thousands of pounds of ripening Chilean imports. With time and the fragility of their wares working against them, every phone call and rushed conversation was seized upon as an opportunity to salvage a bad situation growing steadily worse.
Normally, mornings breed healthy chaos at the Wholesale Produce Market and its sister facility, the ancient 7th Street Market, where about 50 wholesalers and smaller firms unload and dispense tons of fruits and produce destined each day for Southern California's markets and restaurants. But on Tuesday, the Chilean produce embargo put a nervous edge on the activity.
Sales to Mexico
Some dealers inquired desperately about selling their goods to Mexico. Others warned darkly of dealers who might try to disguise their Chilean imports as American-grown.
"The $64,000 question around here is what the hell we're gonna do with this stuff," said Jerry Vessey, the chief fruit salesman at Archie's Produce, where about 1,500 Chilean crates sat unopened. Answers never seemed to come.
Vessey, a white-bearded man with 40 years in the fruit business, paused wearily from phone talks with buyers to describe the hole his firm is in. "Everything we've got is in cold storage right now," he said. "Some of it's ripe already. It's only a matter of days for what's left. I don't know who's gonna take a bath on this, but it's not gonna be just us."
Fruit dealers at the Produce Market said that over the last several years, their firms have grown increasingly dependent on imports from Chile to bolster the winter selection of non-citrus fruits.
"It used to be the Chilean fruit that came in wasn't up to California standards," said Guy Panno, a 30-year produce business veteran with the Sam Perricone Citrus Co. "You'd get a lot of rotten product, fruit with scars. But the last two years, it's come in really beautiful. A lot of the dealers were just getting used to it, and now this."
Faced with the probability that Chilean imports might be impounded until California produce reaches local markets in early May, major wholesalers such as Cal-Fruit said they would use citrus fruits and other safe items, such as bananas and tropical imports, as substitutes for Chilean products on local supermarket shelves.
Overnight, after area supermarkets had stopped buying produce from Chile, Cal-Fruit and other major produce dealers hauled their excess imports into chilly, cavernous storage rooms in the faint hope that the government's impound order would be lifted before the fruit rotted.
The general manager of the largest importer of Chilean fruit in California said that the FDA's decision had caused sales to plummet overnight from $2.5 million a week to nothing. Rick Eastes, whose David Oppenheimer import firm brings in a third of California's crop from Chile, said the company would have to dispose of its entire stock within two weeks.
Because the big fruit wholesalers buy their Chilean product in massive quantities, they expect to be able to return their Chilean shipments to importers for full refunds. "For us, it's more of an inconvenience than anything else," said Cal-Fruit's Iwamoto.
But for the "second jobbers," the smaller dealers that buy from the wholesalers and then sell to food markets, schools and other institutions, the federal impoundment raised fears that they would have to "eat" their losses.
County agriculture officials said that some jobbers might have insurance to tide them over, but it was uncertain whether they would have coverage for shipments impounded by the government.
Irked by Jokes
The jobbers' foul moods were hardly improved by the jokes that spread quickly among produce dealers who do not handle Chilean imports. "Crate of nectarines--$1!" cried one wag. Yelled another, referring to the hasty refrigeration of the imports: "You looking for grapes from Chile? Try any icebox!"