The fate of imported cherries in China is like riding a rollercoaster.
People are mesmerized by the idea of savoring the juicy yet pricey fruit, which has led to the coining of the term “cherry freedom” to gauge wealth levels.
In addition, the combination of a generous harvest in Chile and the COVID-19 pandemic has dragged down prices, making the fruit more attainable to ordinary consumers.
Now, reports that some imported cherries tested positive for traces of the coronavirus in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, have swiftly sent shock waves across Chinese social media, deterring customers and hurting cherry prices.
The Chilean embassy in Beijing said earlier this week it has yet to receive any official notification from the General Administration of Customs of China or any other government body proving that the batch of produce in Wuxi came from the South American country.
The fact that cherries have since tested negative for coronavirus contamination has led more customers to purchase fruit at lower prices.
Most merchants reported brisk sales. Freshippo, the online-to-offline chain store, said cherry sales doubled on Wednesday alone compared with “conventional levels”.
Sought-after items include the JJ-level Chilean cherry, typically used to describe fruits with a diameter of 28 to 30 millimeters. They sell at 199 yuan ($31) for 5 kilograms, while the price was previously around 350 yuan, Freshippo said.
Benlai.com, a fresh produce e-commerce site known for its quality imported food, reported its sales surged 10 percent during the festival season despite the recent concerns.
“The impact of COVID is of course there. And Chile has added 30 percent to its cherry volume this year. These factors have dragged down prices,” said Zeng Yulian, vice-general manager of the commodity center and director of fruit procurement at Benlai.
In addition, Zeng said the company is looking to promote even more premium categories of cherries, namely JJJ and JJJJ levels (indicating bigger fruits) in gift combos, as Chinese trade up their purchases.
“It’s important that we have all the disinfection work in place and strictly abide by the rules for various tests,” he said, adding that all related sanitary and imported food approval certificates are displayed on Benlai’s websites and mobile apps to reassure consumers.
From 2017 to 2019, China’s total imports of cherries increased from $771.26 million to $1.4 billion, according to a study published in September by consultancy Research and Markets.
Although affected by COVID-19 in early 2020, the import volume of cherries still surged 28.4 percent year-on-year, the report said. It estimated the import volume to exceed 430,000 tons, with a market value of $3.05 billion, by 2024.
According to estimates from the Chilean Cherry Committee, in the 2020-21 season Chile will export 316,000 tons of fresh cherries globally, a 38 percent increase year-on-year. A large percentage of these exports will make their way to Asia, and particularly to China.
As imported fruits arrive at ports, customs authorities select and examine certain batches of the imported cherries and allow the comprehensive entry of the produce after its disinfection and sterilization, according to a statement by the Shanghai Customs quoted by Jiefang Daily.
Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the positive result may indicate the existence of either a live or dead virus. He suggested that washing fruit thoroughly under running water could greatly eliminate the risk of being infected.
Merchants are also optimistic.”With a quick rebound in sales, the price for imported cherries is likely to bounce back very soon,” said Chen Yanghui, who procures fruits at Freshippo.