BY INGRID BROWN Associate editor — special assignment firstname.lastname@example.org
LONDON, England — Jamaican ground produce are big ticket items in the Dalston market here. However, they are being threatened by cheaper and higher quality produce from St Lucia and the Dominican Republic (DR), as well as drug smuggling, according to one vendor who has been selling here for more than 25 years.
A lot of importers of ground produce from Jamaica are said to have left the trade after unscrupulous persons started exporting drugs in shipments bound for the United Kingdom.
"Because of the drug smuggling, a lot of persons have stopped importing because some have even gone to prison for it and people don't want to risk their freedom over this," Rupert Jackson told the Jamaica Observer during a visit to the bustling market in East London last week.
Those who remain, he said, ensure that they minimise this risk by only accepting goods shipped by air, which is said to undergo tighter security checks than those by sea.
"Now you hardly find anything coming to us now by sea," he said.
In addition to the challenge with drug smugglers, Jackson said the inconsistency in quality is slowly putting a stranglehold on what was once a thriving business, as they face stiff competition from St Lucia and DR.
"Their stuff is much cheaper and the quality is better," he said, adding that exporters from those countries have been taking a huge chunk of his customers.
Even some of his die-hard Jamaican customers have been requesting green bananas and avocado from St Lucia.
As for dasheens, which he used to import in large quantities from Jamaica, Jackson said he now has to resort to buying them from the DR and St Lucia as they know how to package them best for export.
"If you buy dasheen from Jamaica yu lose yu money because it is dehydrated by the time it gets here, while Dominican Republic and St Lucia do it in such a way that it can keep fresh for weeks after it gets here," he said.
Twenty-five years ago when he joined his uncle in operating Jim's Butcher stall in the market, Jackson said it was much easier to source quality produce in whatever quantity was needed.
Now, he wants Jamaica to put in place quality control measures similar to what exists in St Lucia to ensure consistency in quality and size of the produce.
"Someone told me that in St Lucia they get their things passed there, so when they get here they come with a certificate, but that does not happen for us, because when you buy a box of mangoes some are two pounds and some are half pound and so you have to go through and price them differently and you lose that way," he explained.
"Someone needs to set up a proper grading system in Jamaica because the quality control is very poor," he added.
Jackson said similar produce from countries like Israel do not have this issue because of the standard that is maintained.
"For example, when you buy avocado from Israel everything will be the same size and standard," he said.
He argued further that Jamaican exporters will initially send a good sample and a first shipment, but the quality deteriorates with the second order.
Despite this, Jackson said Jamaican vendors try to buy affordable produce so they can remain price competitive. For example, ackee is sold for £4 a tin, while breadfruit is sold for £1.50 per pound.
Meanwhile, those Jamaican vendors who have endured all the challenges to remain in the business are further faced with competition from vendors of other nationalities, such as the Irish, who operate huge stalls in the market.
Jackson, who stocks almost every available produce that can be found in the Jamaican market, as well as various dry goods, said gone are the days when Jamaicans are lugging back huge suitcases of food from Jamaica to the UK.
"Because a lot of stuff is coming by air, it is still very fresh when it gets here," he said, adding that they have been able to get fresher callaloo than some of what is being sold in Jamaica.
But even this availability is being threatened as Jackson said there are a number of restrictions imposed recently on some items which they have been importing for years.
Among the banned items are anything made with dairy and cheese such as macaroni and cheese, sausages, tinned mackerel (which was a top seller), soursop, and mangoes.
"They keep seizing the mangoes and people are losing big money because if they spot one worm or fruit fly in the shipment they burn the whole thing and you have to pay to destroy it," he said.
But despite the competition, Jackson pointed out that outside of St Lucia and the DR, produce that come in droves from other countries — such as yams from Ghana and yellow yams from Nigeria — are inferior in taste.
This has led regular customers to ask specifically for the Jamaican-grown produce, especially members of the Rastafarian community, according to Jackson.
One such customer, Simone Warburton, who stopped to purchase coconut for her traditional Sunday rice and peas meal said regardless of the price of the other ground produce, she will remain loyal to those grown in Jamaica.
"I don't know about the other stuff in the market, but when I buy here I know I get the real stuff from Jamaica, which tastes like what I am used to eating," said Warburton, who has been living in the UK for the past 10 years.
So committed is she to her Jamaican foods, Warburton said she graters her coconut every week.
"I can't even bother with the blender, so I break and grater my coconut myself," she said.
Jim's Butcher provides employment for four persons.