Millennium Post

EU slips on Mango politics

EU slips on Mango politics
At some point of time in the 1980s, it was difficult for an average American to know whether you were talking about a tropical fruit or the latest dance craze from South America whenever he heard about mangoes.

But today, mango mania has hit not only the country where it is grown and cultivated but also the world. From getting huge displays in upscale food magazines with talented chefs using the fruit with everything from salads, chutneys, pickles, curries, shakes to salsas and daiquiris from the Caribbean, the mango has become a status symbol of the new rich and the only Indian fruit to be appreciated and loved throughout the world.

Arguably, for the Indians, there are only two seasons to celebrate: one is the monsoon and the other is the mango season. The monsoon can rejuvenate and replenish the soil after the scorching heat of the summer while the mango season refreshes India’s soul!

The allure of the ‘king of fruits’, as it is aptly called, is foremost about taste. But this merriment which lasts for just 100 days in a year is quite vulnerable to weather and usually brings in some sort of a crisis, either real or fancied. This delicacy, available in the Indian markets from late March to June, has many varieties grown all over the country. In Mumbai, the Alphonso — a particular variety of mango grown along the western Konkan coast, is world famous.

There are innumerable other varieties of mangoes grown throughout India, like Pairee, Kesar, Badami, Totapuri, Langra, Dussheri, Himsagar, Beganapalli and many more. But the ‘king of all mangoes’ is undoubtedly Alphonso, a creamy, fiberless pulp, superior not only in taste but even colour, flavour and aroma. The UK imports nearly 16 million mangoes from India, comprising over 60 per cent of the market, and is worth nearly £6 million a year. The EU will review the ban before 31 December, 2015. What has the importing community livid is the timing of the ban. Incidentally, the only ones benefiting from the ban are local Indian consumers who are finally getting their favourite fruit at lower rates at the domestic market.

The EU alleges that it found some random fruit flies in about 6 per cent of the consignments back in 2013. They had ‘informed’ the Indian regulator, APEDA. about it and the latter had responded by giving details of their ‘best-in-the-world’ systems and certification, with effect from 1 April. However, on 26 March, the EC took a decision to ban imports of all Indian mangoes. Importers are livid and have termed the ban ‘excessive’, given the short notice and it has, understandably, affected a huge number of people, or so to say the connoisseurs of the fruit.

However, in India, there hasn’t been much of an impact. Apparently, there has been a brief period of boom in supply which had brought down the prices of alphonso in the metros but after 10-15 days it was normalised. According to Ameya Vartak from AAMRAI Organic Alphonso Mangoes in Mumbai, the biggest organic farmers in India, the EU ban was enforced from May onwards; a few lots had been sent prior to the same in April.

He adds, ‘We did send a couple of consignments to UK as well. To put things in perspective total exports to EU/UK are less than 1 per cent of the total mangoes sold in Indian markets; however, these are the top quality fruits. Hence in reality it is a drop in the ocean and does not really affect the Indian markets. But sentiment is affected as far as pricing is concerned. For an ordinary consumer, it is hardly a matter of concern if alphonsos are banned by EU/UK. He will continue to enjoy the fruit.’
Alphonso mangoes are grown all over India but the best quality ones that the customers prefer as table fruit are those from the Ratnagiri and Devgad belt.

Vartak further explains: ‘Our loyal customers got a couple of consignments but we could not supply to them thereafter. They were disappointed and did not understand the logic behind the ban. Since AAMRAI Organic Alphonso is certified by EU and BioSuisse as well, we are working towards acquiring special permission to export AAMRAI mangoes to EU/UK even though other mangoes would be banned. This should materialise in the next season.’ He also says: ‘They are very happy and satisfied with AAMRAI quality, taste and authenticity and so they are not really bothered about the EU ban. In fact, some of our customers who are frequent travellers to EU/UK carried along boxes personally with them since they were unavailable there.’ The prices fell in early May after EU ban but this was more due to oversupply of mangoes due to sudden onset of summer and rise in temperatures rather than excess quantity available in the markets in plenty due to the ban. As mentioned earlier, the actual quantum exported to EU/UK is quite small and so impact is marginal.

Arvind Morde of Venubhai Vithal Morde in Crawford Market, Mumbai, whose family has been in the business for the past 90 years, echoes the same thoughts. He says: ‘Customers who have alphonsos every year have remained the same. The amount we export is very less, so there has been no change in the availability of the fruit and customers have enjoyed it as they have been doing it always.’

AAMRAI Organic Alphonso supplies the fruit to FoodHall (Future Group Premium Format), Star Bazaar, Tutto Bene, Kwik7, Big Basket and specialty food stores. They have also supplied to Oberoi Hotels, Taj Group of Hotels and Novotel. In Dubai, AAMRAI sends supplies to Organic Foods & Cafe which is a store cum restaurant and coffee joint. In Kolkata, the picture is very similar. Fruit sellers in the posh New Market locality are not much bothered about the ban.

They say the regular customers have bought the fruit with the same amount of enthusiasm as they have done for years. Rafeeq Alam, who owns a shop in New Market says: ‘There hasn’t been any rush here because of the ban. Plus, the people of Kolkata are die-hard fans of Himsagar, a very delicate variety of mangoes which is indigenous to the region and is much more popular than the world famous Hapus, or Alphonso as it is commonly known.’ Alam is also a regular supplier to ITC Sonar and Oberoi Grand of this particular variety of mangoes.

Another fruit vendor in New Market sounds suspicious when asked about Alphonsos. Shankar Lal, who has been around for almost 40 years, says: ‘Why Alphonso when Kolkata has its very own Himsagar? The price of Alphonso was considerably low this time (Rs 400- Rs 600 per dozen, with the last price touching Rs 700). But the quality was poor. There was no export this summer so prices were down.’

For hoteliers and chefs, the preference is very clear. Pranay Kumar Singh, executive chef, Swissotel, Kolkata, says: ‘Alphonsos are less in demand in this part of the country. The local varieties like Himsagar and Langra are very popular. Till the time Himsagar is not available in the markets, alphonsos are in demand. But once Himsagar arrives, Alphonso doesn’t stand a chance any more. For Kolkatans, Himsagar is a far better quality and can easily compete with Alphonsos.’

Jayanta Banerjee, executive chef of Great Eastern, Kolkata, is also of a similar opinion. He says: ‘We give more preference to Himsagar, Langra but not Alphonso. We also use Golapkhas and four to five other varieties of mangoes but not Alphonsos. Only rarely, customers demand Alphonsos.’

Even in the national capital, Alphonsos have failed to create a stir. The demands have not shot up due to the ban. Fruit sellers say that they have sold Alphonsos but the prices were low and quality was not up to the mark. Chand, a fruit seller owning a shop in east Delhi, says: ‘It is not that we have not sold Alphonsos at all but the prices were low due to the ban. It hovered around Rs 600-Rs 700 per dozen.’

Suprabhath Roy Chowdhury, executive chef of Eros Hotel, Nehru Place, Delhi, says: ‘We have done a food promotion this summer on Alphonsos. It has been a grand success mainly because of the expat community. For Indians, there are several varieties of mangoes which they enjoy but for the expats, alphonso is the most popular variety. So, keeping them in mind, we have used the fruit in salads, starters and desserts as well.’

Prem Kumar P, executive Sous chef, The Imperial Hotel (Janpath) says: ‘Alphonso mangoes have been in demand for ages. The best way to have them is to cut into slices and have them chilled. Alphonsos have a very special place and respect in most cuisines throughout the world and these mangos occupy a significant place in all major courses served in classical menus. Almost all the famous chefs have tried and cooked their own signature desserts with alphonso mangos. We always serve alphonso mangoes at The Imperial no matter how expensive it is.’

The Alphonso, so-called ‘king of mangoes,’ was named after the Portuguese explorer Afonso de Albuquerque and is considered to be the richest in flavour and is a major export, having a delicate fragrance and a soft yellow skin. Bought mostly by an estimated two million British Asian customers, this fruit is considered truly seasonal.

For many British Asians, mangoes evoke strong memories of extended families and fondness, a special bonding when cousins passionately fight over the fruit stored in cold buckets of water and hold self-proclaimed winners who would wait all day for some sort of a trophy from the elders of the house. The fruit also brings back memories of family picnics organized mainly to celebrate the season of mangoes.

According to recent reports, the British government agency has decided to put colonoal-style pressure on the Indian authorities to put in place steps ahead of the visit of an EU team to India in September to ensure the ban on import of Alfonso mango is lifted.

Leading NRI Labour MP Keith Vaz said that he has received a letter from Prime Minister David Cameron regarding the EU ban on importation of Alphonso mangoes. ‘The Prime Minister’s letter confirmed that support and advice will be given to Indian authorities by the Food and Environment Research Agency ahead of the audit in September,’ said Vaz, who has been spearheading the British Parliament campaign to get the ban overturned.

The EU’s ‘temporary ban’, supported by DeFRA, came into force on 1 May and was to remain effective until December 2015 after authorities in Brussels claimed that consignments were infested with fruit flies that they feared could damage European salad crops. Health Commissioner Tonio Borg has also said that if the audit in September proves ‘successful’, the European Commission will ensure a rapid review of the ban.

But till then, connoisseurs of the fruit will have to continue mourning for an annual ritual that heralds the start of summer, not only in India but also in Britain.
Kaushikibrata Banerjee

Kaushikibrata Banerjee

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