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Pundit’s Mailbag — Flavor Consistency

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 14, 2008

We’ve clearly touched a nerve in the industry as we have tried to wrestle with issues surrounding flavor. We have run many pieces on the subject and most recently these four pieces:

Now a grower reminds us of the difference between theory and practice on this subject:

If you randomly pick out some people and ask them about what they eat for snacks (give to kids), most will reply potato chips, candy, pop corn, etc., and what these items have in common is consistent taste from one day to the next and most are always unhealthy for you.

Fruits on the other hand have to deal with Mother Nature, which can cause inconsistency with taste.

What does the industry want the farmer to do when weather all of a sudden causes sugar content of strawberries or other fruits to drop and change the taste?

Should a farmer be expected to dump everything he picked for 3 days until the sugar content rises?

As a grower, we are constantly experimenting with new varieties for taste and the ability to make a profit, but Mother Nature constantly throws us a curve.

We have had strawberry varieties that ate like candy but only gave 1-2 days shelf life, but when I brought flats home the kids would eat every one of them.

I want the day to come soon that when you mention snacks to parents, they say berries, apples, oranges, melons etc., and then think how fit and trim we would all be.

— Tom O’Brien
C&D Fruit and Vegetable
Bradenton, Florida

Tom has contributed to other discussions we’ve held here at the Pundit, including letters we published here, here and here, and he always does a good job of crystallizing how an issue affects a grower.

On this issue, though, we wonder if there isn’t another way of looking at the subject.

Tom points out that it would not be economically viable for farmers to just throw out their crop because weather or another variable makes the taste temporarily unsatisfactory.

Fair enough. But that may speak to an error in our procurement systems. When a supermarket buys, say, private label cookies from a manufacturer, it has to pay a high enough price to cover the cookies that won’t pass quality control — perhaps the cookies are broken or misshapen or burnt, etc.

Equally, if we insist on consistent product quality, we need a mechanism for paying growers enough on the good stuff so that they can cover the waste intrinsic in having product that sometimes won’t pass “quality control.”

Obviously it is in everyone’s interest to develop varieties that will yield consistently good tasting fruit and will meet the needs of the marketing chain in terms of shelf life, so effort in this area is very important.

We also think that on many crops, the problem is less random weather than a predictable problem that comes at the start of the season. The growers want to get top dollar for their crop; the supermarkets want to be first in their market with the item — and both unwittingly conspire to sell fruit that will disenchant consumers with poor flavor.

There are many things that lead consumers to choose junk food over produce. Its ubiquity contrasts with a very limited produce supply chain. We just were at the United Fresh convention, and to get from the elevator to our hotel room at Bally’s we had to pass two vending machines they had on the floor. One had soda and water, and the other cookies, chips, etc. — no produce in sight.

These types of distribution problems won’t be solved by enhancing flavor consistency in fresh fruit, so it is not a cure-all.

We have written about the impact of food price inflation many times, including here, here, here, here and here, with the rising cost of transportation and inputs such as fertilizer, we are going to have to ask consumers to pay more for fresh produce. This will be far easier to make happen if we can offer a more compelling value proposition — such as consistently good tasting fruit.

Many thanks to Tom for helping us think through such an important issue.

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