A few weeks ago, a Cathay Pacific cargo jumbo jet took off from Mexico for China filled with 6 tons of fresh raspberries and blackberries, the first such shipment of its kind.
It marked a small victory for Mexico, which hunts for exports that can gain traction in China and help correct a wildly lopsided economic relationship.
“We’re sending instructional pamphlets in Chinese on how to conserve and eat berries,” said Mario Andrade Cárdenas of the National Association of Berry Exporters.
Unlike many of its large neighbors in Latin America, Mexico has drawn little Chinese investment. It’s had a tough time ramping up exports there. Its hopes of improving its prickly relations with China suffered a setback last fall, when President Enrique Peña Nieto, facing conflict-of-interest charges, abruptly canceled a contract with a Chinese-led consortium for a multibillion-dollar high-speed rail project.
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Trade numbers look poor. China sold around $60 billion in goods to Mexico last year, mainly components for flat-screen televisions, circuit boards for electronics, cellphones, memory cards and shoes. Mexico sold only about $7 billion back to China, largely copper and iron ore, beer, seafood, juices and some agricultural products.
While Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo says the imbalance is less harmful than it looks because much of what China sells to Mexico is assembled into products that Mexico sells elsewhere, economists see it as a situation that can’t go on. “You can’t run a deficit of 12 or 13 times in favor of China . . . that can last forever,” said economist Sergio Martínez Rivera of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
Enter Mexico’s berry industry.
With a push from the central government, Mexican growers are hunting for a niche in China, hoping to duplicate the success of tequila, which was banned in China until 2013. If trends hold, China will soon become the world’s No. 2 market for tequila, after the United States, which consumes 76 percent of Mexico’s tequila exports.
Other foodstuffs and drink haven’t had such an easy go. Mexico, which grows 1.1 billion tons of avocado a year, half the world’s harvest, sends only 20 tons a month to China, partly due to taste differences. Mexican exporters now are trying to sell it as a fruit for pregnant women to mix with yogurt, a tactic that’s having some success.
Still, the difficulty gave pause to Andrade, the president of the berry association, who saw peddling to Chinese as a pathway to failure.
“I was very skeptical,” Andrade said. “Chinese consumers don’t know raspberries and blackberries.”
He’s come around, however. Since the first cargo jet left with raspberries and blackberries for China on Jan. 28, nearly 20 other air shipments have taken place. Andrade said Mexico’s exporters were pitching berries as trendy to China’s burgeoning wealthy.
“It’s not a product for the masses. But there’s a big upper class in China now,” he said.
The trade association is sponsoring a $700,000 campaign to offer berry tastings at supermarkets and to get berries placed on television shows in China, he said.
At several farms, processing centers and cooling plants in southern Jalisco state, a visitor could see that berry growers had adapted to Chinese sanitary requirements. Specialized areas are demarcated to process berries for export to China, meeting a demand from Beijing. Signs on some refrigeration chambers said, “China Only.”
The growers universally said they expected exports of berries to China to skyrocket in coming years.
“Within five to 10 years, China may become the second most important market for berries in the world, after the United States,” said Casimiro Dávila, purchasing manager for Hortifrut SA, a Chilean fruit firm operating in Mexico.