WASHINGTON -- Raspberries and blueberries are the bonanza fruit of the day, flying out of supermarkets in teeny boxes at super prices.
They're everything the modern consumer demands: candy-like, ultra-convenient, famously healthful and available year round, thanks largely to Southern Hemisphere farmers.
The market is so hot that both domestic production and imports are growing and - in defiance of usual market economics - supply, demand and price are all at record highs.
The berry bonanza is so hot that there's a two-year wait for plants from commercial nurseries.
And consumer demand? It's so keen that when supplies run short, as they do in April when Southern Hemisphere production falls off, many supermarkets simply shift from 6-ounce boxes to 4.4-ounce boxes without changing their prices.
"They're a splurge - a constant splurge," Carol Bleecker of Bethesda said, laughing, as she added a $3.99 half-pint of Chilean blueberries to her shopping cart.
"I like how they taste, and I think they're good for me," she said.
That combination - and especially the fact that berries are healthful - is what increased the national appetite for them, industry leaders said. The health claim also desensitized people to price, overturning decades of experience among berry producers that a 10-cent price increase could drop demand by 40 percent.
"I wouldn't believe it if I weren't living through it," said John Shelford, the president of Naturipe Farms, a multinational berry grower and shipper based in Naples, Fla.
"It's been astronomical," said Henry Bierlink, the executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission in Lynden, Wash.
They named several factors in addition to healthfulness to explain the boom. Among them:
Year-round availability. Berries available only in summer often took shoppers by surprise. Now that they're always in produce departments, Shelford said, "consumers look for and plan to use them." So they buy more. And year-round crops need none of the promotional sales that supermarkets use to introduce and push seasonal crops, so they're more profitable.
Globalization. Chile has been the main U.S. source of winter berries in recent years. Not only does its summer coincide with the U.S winter, but its lower land costs and lower farm wages offset the added shipping costs. Mexico is gaining, however, mainly in raspberries, thanks to new heat-tolerant varieties and cheaper shipping.
Fast and reliable refrigerated transport. Raspberries picked in Chile on Monday are air-freighted from Santiago to Miami, New York, Dallas and Los Angeles late Tuesday. With refrigerated trucking, they'll be in shopping carts nationwide by late Thursday or Friday. Blueberries mostly come by ship from the Southern Hemisphere. They're cooled to virtual dormancy at 32 degrees two hours off the bush and delivered in 20 to 30 days.
New varieties. To survive shipping, a blueberry needs durable flavor and a strong outer skin, plus a clean, dry and sealed scar at the point where it's picked. Leaky berries are rotting berries. The problem is even worse with raspberries, which are thinner-skinned and have tiny picking scars on each of their 100 to 150 little berry bubbles, or drupelets. In addition to addressing this problem, plant researchers came up with varieties that bear fruit earlier and later in the season and in warmer climates
Supermarkets love berries. Produce departments account for only about 10 percent of sales, but they produce an "inordinately higher" 16 percent of profits, according to a 2004 article by Edward McLaughlin, a food industry-marketing specialist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. This justifies big sales-promoting supermarket displays for berries that, at $3.99 a box, return about $2 to the store, according to a wholesaler who asked not to be identified to avoid offending customers. Most of the remainder goes to the farmer; air freight is only about 25 cents a box from Chile vs. 10 cents by ship.
The plastic clam. Back when berries came in wooden or pulp-paper boxes, shoppers often worried about the condition of berries at the bottom, which couldn't be easily inspected. In addition, the plastic wrap that held in the mounded berries made them very crushable in shipping and in shopping bags. Enter the plastic clam, which even comes with a shelf life-extending diaper to sop up accidents.
Forgiving consumers. Long-distance raspberries must be picked firm and orange if they're to arrive in supermarkets semi-firm and deep crimson. That entails a considerable taste tradeoff, said Chad Finn, a small-fruit breeder at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research center in Corvallis, Ore. Lost taste doesn't seem to matter to consumers, though, he said, as long as "the berry looks good."
In that case, said Darryl Coleman, a produce manager at the Bethesda Giant supermarket where Bleecker bought her blueberries, "even if they're $4.99, they fly out of here."