Indian Mangoes Find An Eager Market

Alphonso mangoes: pricey, but fans say they're worth every penny.
Alphonso mangoes: pricey, but fans say they're worth every penny. (Melissa's)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How much are shoppers willing to pay for the Alphonso, a particularly sweet and fragrant fist-size fruit known in India as the "king of mangoes"? Apparently, far more than they have for the common Tommy Atkins or Ataulfo varieties. For some, the high price is worth every cent when each juicy bite evokes memories of home.

Last Thursday, the first shipment of Alphonsos for retail sale arrived at several Washington area Indian markets. Despite a price tag five times that of the ubiquitous mangoes from Central and South America, the supplies of this luscious variety, not previously available in the United States, quickly vanished.

"People are crazy for them," says Sangay Sheth, manager of Patel Brothers in Fairfax. At 1 p.m., he took delivery of 50 cases of Alphonsos, 12 to a case. The store carries other varieties at $6.99 for 12. But when the Alphonsos arrived, priced at $35 per case, customers snapped them up. "In one hour they were gone," Sheth says.

Similarly brisk sales were reported at Patel Brothers stores in Rockville, Hyattsville and Baltimore. Owner Pankaj Sheth expects a new, larger shipment May 31 and weekly deliveries until the season ends in late June. For last week's shipment, many customers reserved in advance. No one complained about the cost, he said.

"People who have consumed this fruit routinely, they understand the price difference," Bhaskar Savani wrote in an e-mail. A co-owner of the Chalfont, Pa.-based Savani Farms, which is importing the Alphonsos, Savani supplied the fruits for a May 1 "Mango Celebration" in Washington hosted by the U.S.-India Business Council and meant to promote trade between the two countries.

For India, the world's largest producer of mangoes, the shipments have been a long time coming. Nearly two decades ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to allow shipments of Indian mangoes to the United States because of concerns about pests, including weevils. The Indian mangoes now for sale are the first fruits to be irradiated overseas and approved for import, which was a condition of the permission.

Savani says that despite high customer demand, relatively few Indian mangoes have made it to our shores so far because the USDA has approved only one irradiation plant. "But many more are on the horizon as the market expands," Savani says.

In the scientific community, food irradiation -- used to kill plant pests and prolong shelf life -- is widely accepted as safe. But opponents question the safety of the process and the effects of extended shelf life on our domestic production of fruits and vegetables.

"There are questions of altering the chemistry of foods and the breakdown of vitamins. A lot of people don't want their food irradiated," says Patty Lovera, spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization. "But it's also a trade issue. It's about shipping food farther at the same time we're dealing with tainted wheat gluten. We're shifting food production the wrong way."

California-based Melissa's, one of the country's largest wholesalers of specialty fruits and vegetables, received 150 cases of Alphonsos last week for what spokesman Robert Schuller calls "a test run" and quickly sold them to Central Market, a high-end grocery chain in Texas. Still, for Schuller, the Alphonsos have arrived at an inopportune moment.

"From a marketing standpoint, it's a tough time of year, at the height of the season. You can buy two mangoes for $1," he says. "You can't sell this product to all retailers. Only the Indian markets and those that serve an affluent clientele will take it."

For others, Schuller says, the price probably isn't worth it: "If I went to a store as any average American, I would turn away from them."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company