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Highlands County grapefruit may end up in South Korea

SEBRING - Like kimchi - a fermented Korean side dish made of vegetables with seasonings - is a delicacy in the United States, in South Korea, fresh Florida grapefruit is considered a special treat of status.

And some of Highlands County's grapefruit may be on the menu of one of the United States' most popular steakhouses in its South Korean locations.

By this spring or summer, red grapefruit marked "Fresh From Florida" will be on the menu at South Korean locations of Tampa-based, Australian-themed Outback Steakhouse.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced Tuesday the partnership, which will have franchised Outback locations throughout the southern part of the Korean Peninsula featuring a Florida-grown, red grapefruit cocktail.

Although grapefruit accounts for only 3 percent of Highlands County citrus production, the likelihood some of those fruits end up 7,650 miles away is good, said Ray Royce, executive director of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, in 2012, Highlands County produced about 713,000 boxes of grapefruit annually compared to about 22 million boxes of oranges, Among oranges, 94 to 95 percent ends up as orange juice.

But although the county's grapefruit harvests pale in comparison to its massive orange output, Royce suspected a portion of the yellow or red varieties such as ruby red, pink, Thompson, Marsh and Duncan grown locally will end up overseas. He said although Florida's east coast and southwestern counties such as Indian River and the central Florida's Polk County grow more grapefruit, as long as the distributor or purveyor for Outback and its parent company, Tampa's Bloomin' Brands Inc., and source their fruit from area packing houses, the chance is high that Highlands County grapefruit would end up making the journey.

"I don't know for sure. It could be every single container comes from Highlands County or Polk County or maybe none," said Royce. "But mostly, we just care about the overall expansion and demand for Florida citrus. It's not important where it comes from directly or indirectly; what's important is there's an expansion of the demand for citrus and that results in an increase of demand for fruit from all citrus-growing regions of Florida, including Highlands."

The U.S. Agricultural Trade Office reported that in 2013 imports of U.S. grapefruit were valued at $11.9 million. Although usually more expensive than imported oranges, grapefruit is increasing in popularity and sales. It's becoming a substitute for oranges, which have

long been a wintertime favorite for Koreans. The trade office reported red ruby grapefruit is growing in popularity as Korean consumers find it to be a sweeter and milder variety and purported health benefits of grapefruit in an increasing senior population for

would further stimulate demand for the fruit.

The volume of Florida grapefruit exports to South Korea has grown more than 400 percent since 2007 to more than 358,000 cartons this year, according to the department of agriculture.

Florida is the largest grapefruit growing area in the world, and Japan is the largest market. About 40 percent of all fresh grapefruit produced in the state goes to Japan and more than 50 percent of all exported grapefruit goes to Japan.

The on-tree value of the 2011-12 citrus crop season preliminary value was an estimated $1.35 billion, the Florida Citrus Mutual reported. Florida grapefruit is grown on approximately 57,000 acres in the state of Florida or about 90 square miles. The main growing region is the Indian River region 150 miles north of Miami.

Any exposure and international distribution for Florida and Highlands County citrus is a boon for the state's economy, said Ben Hill Griffin III, chairman, Ben Hill Griffin Inc., a Frostproof-based citrus growing and shipping corporation his father founded with thousands of acres of citrus land statewide. Like Royce, he said any time Florida citrus can be exported, it makes a positive economic impact and predicted the Japan-South Korea market for Florida grapefruit would expand.

"Anytime we can open up and increase our shipments to Korea, it's a good thing for Florida fresh grapefruit," he said. "There were a lot of restrictions on imports in the past. It should be a good market for us, we've always had a strong market in Japan. I certainly look forward to being part of supplying grapefruit to South Korea."

From January through March, Florida is the source for more than 80 percent of all U.S. grapefruit exports, with almost $100 million in 2013. Last year, South Korea received more than $52.5 million worth of Florida agricultural products.

Comment from Tampa-based Bloomin' Brands Inc., Outback's parent company, wasn't available Wednesday.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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