Plan for making Mexican imports to Philly easier

Mexican produce exporters and area port supporters tour Lucca Freezer & Cold Storage in Vineland.
Mexican produce exporters and area port supporters tour Lucca Freezer & Cold Storage in Vineland. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2014

Mexico could be another China: a prodigious exporter that also has ideal climate conditions and growing regions for succulent fruits and produce.

But because of its location abutting the United States, the historic mode for getting limes, lemons, avocados, berries, and papayas from Mexico to the Northeast has been by truck - through long lines at border crossings and across congested highways.

Now, a group of area business owners with a stake in the Philadelphia port want to bring those cargoes - and anything else that Mexico exports - on an ocean route to Philadelphia.

On Thursday, five Mexican fruit exporters visited a South Jersey cold-storage produce facility, toured the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market on Essington Avenue, met with Philadelphia port officials, and saw the Packer Avenue Marine Terminal, with an eye toward creating a weekly shipping service between Philadelphia and the Port of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's really exciting. This interests us," said Angel Ramirez, international sales director with Comercializadora Tierra Mexicana SA, an exporter of fresh limes. "It would provide us the opportunity to have cheaper freight rates, and that will help our bottom line."

Ramirez and the other exporters met with nearly a dozen produce buyers, including Earth Source Trading in Ephrata and Procacci Bros. in Philadelphia.

The next meeting is scheduled for July 16-18 in Veracruz, "to discuss, for real, if this can be feasible," said Martin Caro, deputy trade and investment commissioner with ProMexico, the Mexican government's economic-development agency.

Mexico exports $3 billion a year worth of goods to Pennsylvania, including manufacturing, automotive, and aerospace products.

Pennsylvania exports $3.4 billion annually to Mexico, including chemicals, machinery, electronic products, rubber, paper, and wood. Major exporters in the state include Heinz Foods, General Electric (locomotive parts), Hershey Co. (chocolate), and Alcoa (aluminum products).

Representatives of steamship companies Maersk Line and Mediterranean Shipping Co. were on the tour. The first stop was Lucca Freezer & Cold Storage in Vineland, one of the nation's largest produce storage and packing operations.

President Rusty Lucca provided a tour and lunch in a company cafeteria that can accommodate 400 employees and a swarm of truckers. More than 100 trucks a day pick up fruit from around the world, packed in bags and boxes, and deliver it to major retailers such as Walmart, Shop Rite, Acme, Costco, and Kroger.

"We'd like to be a service provider for their products when they come here," Lucca said. "We want to show them we have the infrastructure necessary to support and take good care of their crops."

The visit was the culmination of a yearlong effort led by Ship Philly First, the nonprofit group of business owners, and the Mexican consulate in Philadelphia.

"It's not just fruit that we're looking for," said Fred Sorbello, president of the Mullica Hill Group, the nation's largest cold-storage receiver of meat.

"My importers are very interested in doing trade with Mexico - the meat side of this," said Sorbello, former president of Ship Philly First. "The Holts [at the Packer Avenue and Gloucester City terminals] do a tremendous amount of sugar with Mexico. We're looking to take that sugar, get it into a container operation, and create this steamship-line service."

Together, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania handle $10 billion in exports and imports annually with Mexico, Sorbello said. "It's balanced trade - $10 billion one way and $10 billion the other way."

After lunch, the visitors went to the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market on Essington Avenue in South Philadelphia, followed by a briefing at the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, and then a tour at Packer Avenue Marine Terminal on Columbus Boulevard.

About 25 percent of the fruit at the Wholesale Produce Market is from Mexico.

Mexico's trade with the U.S. exceeds $500 billion a year, and 70 percent is handled by truck, said Caro, of ProMexico.

"If we want to increase the trade between our countries, we need to explore other routes, in terms of logistics," he said. "The shipping between Philadelphia and Veracruz would provide that for us."


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