US fresh produce firm Chiquita Brands International has said its banana volume rose 8% in the first two months of the third quarter compared to the year-ago period, driven by new business from several major retailers.

"We are pleased with the increases in banana volume we have achieved in the third quarter, especially in North America, where we have gained new business with the top 25 retailers," said Fernando Aguirre, chairman and chief executive officer. "At the same time, we realised higher pricing levels in Europe and maintained relatively stable pricing in North America."

The company's average banana prices in North America fell 1% in July-August 2004 versus the same period last year.

Following the expansion of the European Union to 25 states on 1 May, ten more countries are now subject to the EU's banana quota and tariff system. As a result of the enlargement, the company now reports its European pricing and volume data in two parts: "core markets", which include the 25 countries of the European Union, plus Norway, Iceland and Switzerland, and "trading markets", which include other European and Mediterranean countries.

In the company's core European markets, Chiquita's average banana prices rose 16% on a US dollar basis in the first two months of the 2004 third quarter, compared to the same period a year ago. On a local currency basis, prices in those same markets rose 7% from a year ago. Price comparisons for the period were favourably affected by a heat wave that depressed demand for bananas in 2003. The volume of bananas the company sold in its core European markets rose 1% overall in the first two months of the quarter, compared to the same period a year ago, even though volume fell 27% in the ten new EU countries, reflecting the impact of the new quota system.

In the company's trading markets in other European and Mediterranean countries, Chiquita's average banana prices rose 1% on a US dollar basis and fell 6% on a local currency basis from a year ago. Volume sold in these countries rose 28%.

In Asia, where the company primarily operates through joint ventures, the volume of bananas the company sold in the first two months of the third quarter rose 13% from the same period a year ago as the company continued its growth in the region. Banana prices in Asia fell 7% on a US dollar basis in the first two months of the 2004 third quarter, compared to a year ago, while prices in local currency fell 11%.