Avocado fight heads to court
Deep in a lush remote valley in the Dominican Republic, the discovery of a single very special tree spawned a new species of avocado.
Called the Carla, it has since emerged as a rock star of the avocado world, combining the buttery richness of the popular but small California-grown Hass with the prodigious size of Florida varieties. The Carla created a sensation when a high-end British retailer began stocking the “party-size” fruit large enough to make a loaf of avocado toast.
Now, the Carla’s “inventor” is in Miami federal court suing to protect its exclusive rights to sell a valuable product sought by trendy foodies. With allegations of tree-branch theft, clandestine cloning and DNA tests on competitors’ produce, it’s not your everyday patent infringement case.
Agroindustria Ocoeña, the Dominican company that holds a U.S. patent for the Carla, is suing a Miami produce distributor, Fresh Directions International, claiming that it is illegally selling Carlas in South Florida from another grower. They aren’t knock-off avocados either, the lawsuit argues. DNA tests show they are virtual Carla clones, which the suit suggests can mean only a grifted graft — somebody pruned and pilfered Carla tree branches to recreate their own orchard.
“The party who is importing the illegal fruit either has to stop, or license the patent from my client,” said Coral Gables lawyer Ury Fischer, who represents Agroindustria Ocoeña, listed in patent documents as the Carla tree inventor.
As part of its research, Agroindustria’s legal team visited supermarkets around Miami, filling their office with dozens of avocados for testing. They did not, he say, all go to waste afterward.
“We ended up eating a lot of guacamole,” Fischer said.
Fresh Directions International did not return a call for comment.
The lawsuit comes with demand for avocados skyrocketing in many international markets, including America, where avocado toast now rivals guacamole in popularity. California leads the United States in avocado production. Florida is second.
The Sunshine State specializes in “green skins” that are larger and have a lighter flavor than the “Hass” variety, which is grown in California and dominates the U.S. market.
Florida avocados often compete with some species from the Dominican Republic, another one of the leading world producers of the the fruits with variety names like Semil 34, Choquette and Pollock. Last year, the island nation shipped 33.3 million pounds of avocados to the U.S., according to data compiled by one U.S. avocado trade association.
If you want to sample a Carla, you’re out luck until next year — their harvest runs between February and May.
The single tree that produced the first Carla avocados was discovered by Carlos Antonio Castillo Pimentel in 1994 in his orchard in the Ocoa River Valley. Why he named the fruit Carla isn’t explained in court or patent documents but there are several traits that made it attractive to the grower. For one, the tree produces fruit later and longer than similar species and can be harvested from February into early June, well after the Florida growing season.
“It doesn’t necessarily compete with most Florida varieties,” said Peter Leifermann, the vice president of sales and marketing for Brooks Tropicals, a Homestead produce shipper that has a deal to distribute Carla avocados in Florida. “It helps fill a gap in the calender year. We are able to supply the market with green-skin avocados nearly 12 months a year.”
The fruit also is generally higher in oil content, which gives it a richer taste closer to the Haas than Florida varieties. When a British retail chain M&S started selling them in 2016, for instance, local media touted them as the “beast” of the avocado world with “silky flesh so smooth it can be used in place of butter.”
The Castillo family secured a U.S. patent for the avocado in 2006, giving them exclusive rights to produce, sell and license the fruit for at least 15 years. But in recent years, unlicensed Carla clones began popping up in supermarkets throughout South Florida.
The cloning of the Carla trees likely happened in the Dominican Republic, home to many avocado growers and groves. Who and when remains a mystery — if Agroindustria has an idea, the company is not saying publicly.
But how is not hard to figure out. Simply planting a seed from a Carla avocado would not create an identical tree, said Jeff Wasielewski, a Homestead-based horticulturist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. It can only happen if someone fused branches from the original Carla tree grove to a seedling elsewhere— a process known as “grafting.” That tree, he said, would be essentially cloned and grow to produce matching fruit.
“It’s a very ancient technique,” Wasielewski said.
The lawsuit alleges that Fresh Directions International has been selling the unlawful avocados labeled with the stickers “Avopro” since at least 2012. In August of that year, Agroindustria Ocoeña sent the company a cease-and-desist notice — to no avail, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit seeks to stop Fresh Directions from selling the “infringing” avocados, and for damages for years of their sales.
Leifermann, of Brooks Tropicals, said the lawsuit is important because it helps maintain the integrity of the local avocado market. That’s important in South Florida, where local avocado growers are struggling after being hard hit by development taking over groves, a lack of labor, an outbreak of a fungal disease, and Hurricane Irma.
The industry can be hurt more, he said, when “you have unscrupulous, shippers and even growers putting out an inferior product just to grab a market share. At the end of the day, the consumer gets a bad taste in their mouth.”