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Santa Maria strawberries sold at China's first Costco

Posted at 6:21 PM, Aug 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-28 22:45:24-04

Hundreds of people flooded into China's first-ever Costco Tuesday, and among the family-size detergent and bulk packs of meat customers could buy were strawberries grown in Santa Maria.

The strawberries were shipped 6,500 miles away from Giant Berry Farm in Santa Maria, which is owned by Watsonville-based California Giant.

"A lot of our berries go to Costco," said California Giant Communications Director Lisa Jewell. "They reached out to us just last week and said they've got this new store opening in Shanghai and wanted to know if we could somehow get berries to their grand opening."

Jewell said berries were picked and packaged before being flown first class to China.

"Which is no small task, let me tell you," Jewell said.

The berries were subjected to rigorous inspections locally, at the state level and with the USDA before making the journey to a place that rarely gets to taste the California confections.

"Most of the strawberry exports do go to Mexico and Canada, all within trucking distance," said California Strawberry Commission Spokeswoman Carolyn O'Donnell.

O'Donnell said the U.S. has been free to export berries to China since 2016 but regulations and tariffs implemented in 2018 kept the gears of trade from turning.

According to O'Donnell, several other Central Coast strawberry farms were contacted by Costco but they could not meet the regulatory qualifications in time for the store opening.

With new developments in strawberry varieties that allow the fruit to last longer, the produce can now be shipped longer distances.

In a country that struggles to produce its own strawberries, the red gems are particularly desirable in China and they're willing to pay the price.

"You'll find that California strawberries exported to other countries when they're flown there, they do go for a premium price," O'Donnell said.

Though the cost of the membership at the Shanghai Costco is less than in the U.S., it's unclear just how much the strawberries sell for in foreign markets.

Jewell said she only saw photos of her farm's produce on the Shanghai Costco shelves, but she knows the berries were a hit.

"I can only imagine what those consumers thought of when they walked past that big pile of fruit from California all the way in their stores in Shanghai," Jewell said.

Jewell said her company is looking at furthering the strawberry shipments to China in the future.