The fruit underworld: Fruitleggers, organized crime and intellectual property theft


The mundane peach and the ordinary apple hold no appeal for journalist Adam Leith Gollner. In the book The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession, he makes eating exotic fruit sound like discovering an alternative universe -- and the reason for being.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You say something in the beginning of the book about the intense connection between fruits and humans. Do you think this connection is different than between us and other foods?

Adam Leith Gollner: I think that the connection between humans and fruits is a particularly intense one. It's a two-way relationship where fruits depend on humans just as much as humans depend on fruits. Both parties want the same thing, which is survival.

Let me illustrate this. Fruits allowed humans to evolve, to become humans. Without fruits, without this immense diversity of flowering plants and fruits, we would still be nocturnal insectivores gnawing on roaches in the moonlit treetops.

LRK: What an interesting theory.

ALG: That's what one biologist put forward as a theory for humankind's evolution. But on the other hand, by that exact same token, fruits need humans to disperse them. Humans act as seed-dispersal agents. Fruits have evolved this way of making us desire them so that we will then further their reach. That is part of the complex, two-way relationship between fruits and humans.

LRK: One of the things that becomes so obvious in the book, practically from the first page, is your fascination with this subject. You also write about fruits that we've never dreamed of. I have worked in food for 30 years and I had never heard of some of these things. What are some of the wildest fruits that you've known? You mentioned one that was a turning point for you.

ALG: One of the fruits that really changed my life -- and there were many of them -- but one of the great turning points in my life was encountering something called a dragon fruit. I had already been to Brazil where I came across all sorts of wonderful fruits. The jambu looks kind of like a purple lilac pear, but biting into it, it tastes like this refreshingly sweet Styrofoam. There had also been this thing called an abiu that looked like a lemon but was filled with this gummy, translucent interior. It tasted like crème caramel from a French bistro. In Brazil I had become initially fascinated.

I then came back home to Montreal, where I live. I had a cocktail party and I invited some friends. I told everybody that they had to bring a special fruit. Nobody showed up with anything except for one friend, shortly after midnight, who arrived bearing this ostrich egg-sized, flaming pink object, covered in orange-green flaps and a mane of dead flower petals. It looked like something from outer space. I remember he sliced it open and it had this beautiful, white flesh dotted with little, small, black seeds as inconspicuous as a kiwi's. It was, of course, a dragon fruit.

LRK: What did it taste like?

ALG: It was very subtle. One of the great challenges and one of the great delights for a fruit writer is to attempt to communicate the taste of something. This dragon fruit tasted very subtly like watermelon with a bit of Concord grape and some strawberry. It had a very subtle flavor.

LRK: What is a fruitlegger?

ALG: A fruitlegger is somebody who smuggles fruits across borders. Many of these fruits that I've described are unavailable in the U.S. There are many, many, many more fruits that are in the book that you just can't get in your local supermarket. Some of the people who I encountered are people who are so passionate about the objects of their desire that they're willing to smuggle in order to get them home. Those are the fruitleggers.

LRK: There's real concern because along with the fruits can come bugs that can have a negative influence on agriculture in our country or in other countries.

ALG: Absolutely. The fruits from the tropics or even from other temperate countries could arrive harboring fruit flies and other pests that could do damage to domestic crops. For that reason there are many rather stringent phytosanitary concerns that keep these fruits out because of the potential harm.

LRK: I'm just looking at a list I made as I was reading the book: the California avocado commandos, the Corsica kiwi mafia, the international, white-collar, fruit criminals. This is another dimension of fruit being taken over borders.

ALG: Absolutely. There is an interesting relationship between fruit production and organized crime. One of the reasons that exists is fruit is one of the last all-cash businesses. All fruit transactions at the wholesale level are conducted with cash only.

When you go to the Hunts Point Terminal Market outside of New York City, where the entire island of Manhattan gets its fruits, it's all cash. For that reason, whether it's organized crime, whether it's mob ties or mafia connections to certain fruit distribution networks, or whether it's drug smugglers who actually use fruits as a way of bringing in contraband narcotics, there is this incredibly bizarre and sometimes dark relationship between fruits and crime.

LRK: You also talk about the original Golden Delicious apple tree, which is actually locked in a cage, and protecting seed banks.

ALG: There's lots of white-collar fruit crime. Intellectual property abuses are rampant in the fruit world where somebody will market a certain type of fruit and say that it's something else.

A classic example of this would be a fruit called the Pluot, which has risen to prominence over the past decade. It's a plum-apricot hybrid that is very delicious. One day the hybridizer who invented the Pluot was walking through his fields with another marketer. He said, "I'm going to call this one the dinosaur egg" because it really looked like a speckled dinosaur egg.

The other grower said, "Oh man, I'm trademarking that." He didn't say it, but he did go out, he trademarked it and he stole the name. It's one of those many examples of how intellectual property issues are very sensitive in the fruit world.

From This Episode: 
The Fruit Hunter
July 26th, 2008

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