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Pundit’s Mailbag — Sweet Onion Specifications Need To Start With A Definition

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 22, 2010

We’ve run several pieces related to sweet onions and the issues related to making sure that onions advertised as “sweet” really are:

Sweet Onion Fraud

Pundit’s Mailbag — Retail Specifications Needed for Sweet Onions.

Pundit’s Mailbag –With Proper Science And Marketing, Onions Could Be Sold As Mild, Medium Or Hot

Now we have received a letter from an important player in the field:

Your article echoes many of our concerns. National Onion Labs, Inc. was formed in 1998 with the purpose of identifying and applying scientific solutions to the issues you raise. Since its inception, NOL has tested more than 1.3 million onions utilizing an array of public and internally developed methods to identify factors that cause onions to provide consumers’ pleasant or unpleasant taste experiences.

One quick clarification, your comments implied that only short-day onions could be sweet. The Walla Walla Sweet Onion, easily the oldest sweet onion in America, is an intermediate to long-day onion. In addition, over the past decade, selections made by New Mexico State University and others have resulted in some intermediate and late-intermediate varieties, which can also be produced with lower pungencies. In our experience, some of these should be considered “sweet” onions though they are not a short-day variety.

I think you are absolutely right in identifying a global issue resulting from competition on price, at the cost of quality, due to a failure in establishing product criteria that match the desired consumer experience. I agree that the most efficient place to move toward a solution is for retailers to adopt specifications.

The first step in this process should be a Product Description, which specifies the desired consumer experience. Something along the following lines could be considered: “Onions with the designation of sweet should, when eaten raw, have mild and pleasant flavors that leave a lingering impression of sweetness. These onions should be free from pungent, bitter, metallic or other ‘off’ flavors, which interfere with the consumer experience of mild and sweet flavors.” The material in quotations is an adaptation from Horticulture Australia Project VN07010: Mild Onion Certification Program Development — Phase I, Mild Onion Product Objective, Description and Specification Sheet. The term “mild” is used in Australia where the term “sweet” would be used in the US.

The second step would be to establish Product Specifications, which are best able to identify qualifying and non-qualifying product. If, however, there cannot be agreement on what the definition or description is, then there will be little chance of agreement as to how to identify it.

Obtaining agreement as to appropriate specifications may be challenging as it will take more than the pungency or Pyruvic Acid test to do an adequate job. There are a number of onions that are mild (low in pungency) but do not have appropriate flavor qualities.

This very issue is the origin-of-variety specification efforts by the State of Georgia that began in the late 1990’s. (IE: Onions with low pungency or low Pyruvic Acid test numbers that do not taste sweet.) In many ways, the nation is now facing the same challenge of flavor quality and product integrity.

Other tests are needed and are available that directly measure what the consumer tastes. Beyond variety and the limitations of the pungency test, there will be additional challenges to face. In our experience, onion flavor results from the interaction between variety, environment and grower management. Two adjoining fields with the same variety and identical grower management can have very different results. Testing, to be accurate, must be done at each individual field.

These challenges are surmountable, and anyone who wants to, can and will get it right. There is a small cost to accurately know what is being produced, and it may be more costly to actually produce qualifying product. However, if the only criteria is price, then the producer who knows and cares may be at a competitive disadvantage.

Sweet onions appear to be driving category growth. Imagine what would happen to producer, distributor and retailer sales if a higher percentage of consumers experienced the unique flavors that sweet onions present. Many old timers will tell you, “They simply don’t taste as good as they used to.”

If we can get it right, revenue growth and increasing profits for all industry stakeholders will occur.

We look forward to the dialogue which your article will bring.

David Burrell
President and Founder
National Onion Labs, Inc.
Collins, Georgia

We thank David for this informative letter. To us it raises substantial questions. If, for example, as David states, “Two adjoining fields with the same variety and identical grower management can have very different results,” we wonder how consistent can sweetness possibly be within a field? After all, if a farmer sold his field to two different people who each continued farming, those would now be two fields.

Although we are sympathetic to the notion of establishing a definition of sweetness that addresses the consumer experience, we suspect that subjective terms such as “should, when eaten raw, have mild and pleasant flavors that leave a lingering impression of sweetness” are likely to spread as much smoke as light on the situation.

Yet, of course, David is correct. Without a definition, we can’t really make a specification.

Of course, whether there is an industrywide specification or if buyers develop their own specifications, David’s end point is the crucial one:

“…if the only criteria is price, then the producer who knows and cares may be at a competitive disadvantage.

Sweet onions appear to be driving category growth. Imagine what would happen to producer, distributor and retailer sales if a higher percentage of consumers experienced the unique flavors that sweet onions present. Many old timers will tell you, ‘They simply don’t taste as good as they used to.’ If we can get it right, revenue growth and increasing profits for all industry stakeholders will occur.”

There has been a lot of industry buzz lately about increasing flavor and enhancing the consumer experience with fresh produce.

The issue with sweet onions combines this industry imperative with common notions of consumer fraud. We have onions out there labeled as sweet that are not. That is defrauding our customers and hurting future sales.

We need to stop it. Now.

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