The first legal shipment of Indian mangoes to the United States (US) in decades landed at New York's Kennedy International Airport on 27 April, probably the most eagerly anticipated fruitdelivery ever.
“If we can get them at good ripeness," said Suvir Saran, executive chef of the Indian restaurant Devi in Manhattan, "people will go mad for the beautiful, supple flesh and intense flavour."
Some Indian-Americans have spent hundreds of dollars at an auction in Miami for rare Florida-grown Indian mango varieties; flown home specially for the season; or tried to smuggle illicit fruit past airport inspectors, striving to recapture rapturous memories of their homeland's luscious, incomparable mangoes. Until now, though, most could only crave and dream.
India first applied to ship mangoes to the US in 1989. But the US has been barring the import of Indian mangoes because the fruit can harbour the mango seed weevil, a pest absent from North America. A solution emerged in January 2006, when the US agriculture department allowed the import of the produce treated with low doses of irradiation to kill or sterilize insects—a somewhat controversial issue.
US Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (R), US Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen eat Indian mangoes at the Commerce Department in Washington 01 May 2007
On a visit to India five weeks later, President Bush had cheered the news as he announced a pact on nuclear energy and trade. "The US is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes," he said.
Indian newspapers covered each step of the process that followed as if it were the World Cup. A sequence of agreements, rule-making and inspections led to the agriculture department's certification of an irradiation facility on 26 April, the final approval needed for shipments to begin.
This facility, which has been used to keep onions from sprouting, is located 125 miles northeast of Mumbai, close to the prime coastal orchards growing Alphonsos, India's most celebrated mango variety.
Harvested in April and May, this "king of mangoes" has orange-yellow skin, smooth, fibreless flesh, and a distinctive, powerful aroma and flavour, with notes of almond, coconut, vanilla and citrus.
Bhaskar Savani, whose family grows mangoes in Gujarat, and who owns a chain of dental clinics near Philadelphia, met Indian and US authorities to speed up the process of mango import and brought in the first load. He provided most of this trial batch—150 boxes of Alphonsos and a saffron-skinned variety, Kesar, grown by his family—to the US-India Business Council, a trade group, for its celebration on Tuesday afternoon in Washington. Commercial shipments will follow.
India has grown mangoes for thousands of years, and produces half of the world's crop, but inadequate infrastructure and pest quarantines have limited its exports to less than 1% of the global mango trade.
Indian mango growers are hoping for lucrative sales to affluent expatriates and are eager to export to the US. A US agency for international development programme is helping growers to improve agricultural and marketing practices.
However, the exporters' optimism may be foiled by the high cost of flying mangoes halfway around the world. None of the major US mango importers, who have close ties with their Latin American suppliers, seem interested in Indian sources. It is now peak season for Mexican mangoes, which provide 60% of the US supply, and are typically inexpensive, 50 cents a pound wholesale—about a tenth what the Indian fruit might cost.
"I think the price is going to be an issue," said Erwan Landivinec of Baldor, a distributor to high-end markets in New York. Shipments could be less expensive by sea, but the fruit might not survive the 18-day journey.
About five years ago, Citrofrut, a large Mexican juice processor, planted Alphonsos to add colour and flavour to its mango puree. This experiment raises the possibility that moderately priced, unirradiated fresh Alphonsos eventually might be available from Mexico. "We'd grab that in a second," said Bill Gerlach of Melissa's World Variety Produce, a national specialty wholesaler.
Some public health advocates oppose irradiation of produce, claiming that it causes harmful chemicals, but this use has not yet become as contentious as irradiation of meat, which applies a higher dose to sterilize bacteria.
The US Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization endorse food irradiation as safe. Many studies have found that the effects of irradiation on mango quality vary markedly by dose, variety and ripeness at treatment. Overall, the process delays ripening, extends shelf life, and is gentler than the hot water dip used on most imported mangoes to kill pests.
Whether or not Indian mango imports succeed commercially, it seems likely that irradiation will soon become a common treatment for many tropical fruits. The FDA is also proposing new rules that would no longer require irradiated foods to bear the international radura symbol, if they are not "materially changed" by irradiation.