Iraq: Importing the perfect date

What has Iraq got that the US doesn’t? The world’s most coveted dates. Two men are fighting to export them...

For thousands of years, Iraq has been known for an abundant, coveted natural resource that, unlike its crude-oil reserves, has yet to spark a war or United Nations scandal.

“As Egypt is famous for cotton production, Iraq is famous for the type, quantity and quality of its dates,” said Zahir Whaib, an electromechanical engineer for a Baghdad consulting company. “I do miss them while I’m in the US The dates here are not the same quality or taste.”

If Whaib has his way, Americans will soon be able to taste what they have been missing during a nearly 30-year period of war and sanctions (lifted in 2003) that crippled Iraq’s date industry. The country was once the world’s largest producer, with about 30 million date-palm trees, more than 620 official date varieties and a reputation so distinguished that many early California date farmers in the 1930s planted Iraqi palm saplings.

With date palms now numbering about 3 million and farmers eager to revive production, Whaib came to the US to determine the necessary Food and Drug Administration standards for importing dates and to seek out modern farming equipment. He also had a delivery to make: date samples for an interested American entrepreneur.

“I try to increase trade where it’s difficult to do so,” said Matt Nussbaum, whose international development and marketing firm, TAI, works with small producers in Jordan, Morocco and Iran. “Zahir passed the first test-getting date samples here in one piece.”

Nussbaum raved about one type of Iraqi date in particular: the sweet, moist Khistawi, which he described as having a molasses-like consistency. He approached Louisiana’s John Folse Bakery-“one step behind Emeril,” according to Nussbaum-about starting a line of products made with Iraqi dates. The Khistawis made a favorable impression.

“Nussbaum had one premium, really nice, very sweet date,” said executive pastry chef David Harris. “But the pit was in it.” He cautioned that the dates would be useful for his purposes only if they were pitted and processed, and that even then, customer interest would be limited.

“I love date nut bread, but if you put it out against cinnamon or banana bread, forget about it,” Harris said. “No one gets too turned-on about dates.”

Lorrie Cooper, spokeswoman for the California Date Administrative Committee, admitted that dates appeal primarily to older and ethnic niche markets.

“The younger generation isn’t familiar with dates. They look at them and go, ‘Ugh, I don’t like them.’ But if they taste them, they’ll realize how sweet dates are,” she said.

The committee has gone on the offensive, supplying Coachella Valley schools with brochures about the health benefits of dates (which are rich in minerals and vitamins) and inviting students to tour some of the area’s roughly 110 date farms.

California produces between 36 million and 38 million pounds of dates annually-sold almost entirely within the US-and ranks 17th among date producers worldwide, according to Cooper. (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt are some of the biggest.) In 2005, when Iraq petitioned the US government for approval to import dates, many domestic producers expressed concern that the market would be flooded. But President Bush nonetheless signed an order that June granting Iraq permission to import dates.

“What we took away from the hearings was that the White House was going to do what it could to get Iraq back on its feet with regard to agriculture, and if it meant sacrificing a domestic industry to do it, then so be it,” Cooper said.

Nussbaum believes that importing Iraqi dates would not pose a threat to domestic farmers because the end products meet different needs. California primarily grows premium Medjools and Deglet Noors, classified as Grade A and packaged in their whole form. “That’s not the target we’re going after,” Nussbaum said.

Khistawis, Nussbaum’s dates of choice, are not grown in the US and are too delicate to survive the journey from Iraq through Syria or Jordan to be sold as a retail product in the US Nussbaum’s thinking is that imported Grade B dates would be processed upon arrival in the US and most likely used as a paste, a filling or a chopped ingredient. (Conditions at Iraqi farms, where Whaib says workers often remove date pits by hand, are too far from meeting US regulations for the processing to occur there.)

Pat Whelan, managing director of Sahadi Fine Foods, a 50-year-old institution in Brooklyn, N.Y., said Iraqi dates might have a one-time novelty appeal, but that they would be unlikely to win repeat customers or converts-especially if complications in shipping and clearing customs ratcheted up the price.

Whelan has worked with Nussbaum on other products, such as pomegranate juice from Azerbaijan, and tempered his skepticism about the feasibility of importing Iraqi dates with an appreciation of its potential. “I still believe that one of the ways you can reduce conflict is by trade,” Whelan said.

Whaib thinks a date trade would improve relations between Iraqis and Americans, and the Department of Commerce is interested in this angle. Nussbaum is coordinating with members of the department’s investment and reconstruction task forces for Iraq and Afghanistan, whose help he needs, partially for security reasons.

It’s too dangerous for Nussbaum to visit the date farms in central and southern Iraq, so he has to find someone capable of inspecting conditions there to ensure that the dates are of satisfactory quality.

Nussbaum is willing to be patient and to jump through however many hoops he needs to, because he believes in Iraqi dates as a harbinger of good and a viable import.

“At the end of the day, this product has to stand on its own two feet, and it can,” Nussbaum said. “We just have to get it going.”