The great thing about the Pundit is the readership is so diverse and so willing to engage that, although we can, of course, make a mistake, we can’t be wrong for very long.
When Fresh Express leaked the story regarding its new FreshRinse product to The New York Times, which headlined the article, Post-Recalls, A New Way to Clean the Greens, we were inundated with inquiries and quickly responded with a piece titled Fresh Express Claims A Food Safety Breakthrough…But Does It Work And Will It Cause Consumer Confusion?
Among the points made by the Times was this point regarding the composition of the rinse:
“The new wash solution, called FreshRinse, contains organic acids commonly used in the food industry, including lactic acid, a compound found in milk.”
Now this was pretty cryptic and we wondered about the implications for vegans, those who observe the Kosher laws and lactose intolerant folks. After reading The New York Times article, we wrote that the wash “contains what appears to be a derivative of milk.”
Well, we were wrong on that one. The experts advise us, and Fresh Express now confirms, that there is no milk derivative used in making FreshRinse. Here is a sampling of the letters we received on the subject:
Regarding the Fresh Express acid-rinse story: Lactic acid sounds like it is from milk, like oleic acid sounds like it comes from olives (especially if you speak Italian or know Latin). Lactic acid is produced commercially by industrial fermentation using various micro-organisms such as lactobacillus and other bacteria. It can be produced by rhizhopus and other fungi as well.
[The acid] should not be an issue for vegetarians or kosher rules — unless you were suggesting a perception problem by consumers. That could be real.
I would guess the big issue is consumer trust, especially if Fresh Express does not publicly list all the ingredients in the rinse or fails to allow independent labs to confirm their claims.
One would want independent confirmation of greater efficacy against pathogenic strains of salmonella, e. coli, listeria etc. Better kill of coliforms wouldn’t be enough, for example.
One suspects that the old Fresh Express would have managed all this better?
— Dan Cohen
Maccabee Seed Company
Regarding the concerns over FreshRinse, it does not contain lactose, which is a disaccharide sugar most common to legume seeds. Lactic acid is a 3-carbon organic acid found in any living cell under low-oxygen conditions — in no way related to lactose.
— Brad Murphy
Department of Horticulture
University of Arkansas
I assume you have already gotten feedback about confusing lactic acid with lactose. Lactic acid is found in fermented products and is not considered a dairy product. It also has nothing to do with lactose intolerance. It may get confusing for consumers because of the name, but it has none of the dairy concerns raised.
— John Mount
University of Tennessee
I have enjoyed your newsletter for years. Thank you for your services.
We are writing today in regard to your earlier article on the FreshRinse product used by Fresh Express in their efforts to improve the safety of produce. The article makes mention of lactic acid as a component of FreshRinse and alleges that the lactic acid therein could pose a problem for vegans, kosher consumers and lactose-intolerant consumers on the basis of it being derived from a dairy source.
This statement is not correct. The name lactic acid is actually derived from the culture that is used in the fermentation — lactic acid bacteria. The substrate used in the fermentation is sugar, NOT dairy ingredients. Thus there are no dairy derivatives in the lactic acid.
You may be confused because similar lactic acid bacteria are used to produce lactic acid in cheese and cultured dairy products. But the source of dairy here is the milk — not the culture. Besides vegetable decontamination, lactic acid is used in wide variety of foods, including candy coating, dressing and sauces, prepared meals, as well as cosmetics applied directly on the skin.
PURAC is the world’s largest producer of lactic acid, which has been in commercial production since 1935. PURAC lactic acid is considered natural and organic, made from sustainable ingredients. It is also kosher.
The salt derivative lactate is widely used as an antimicrobial in the meat industry.
This should answer your obvious consumer’s concerns about the use of lactic acid in food. If you have any questions regarding lactic acid and its derivatives, we would be happy to respond.
— Jan Payne
Business Development Mgr/Preservation
OK, three strikes with a wet noodle for the Pundit. We certainly wish we had clarified the situation up front.
Of course, with publications such as The New York Times going on about FreshRinse and milk, we doubt we were the only ones confused. In fact, we know that was not the case because we received e-mails from industry members trying to make heads or tails out of The New York Times article.
We are, of course, pleased to set the record straight and glad the product doesn’t raise issues related to milk.
We think the lesson for the industry as a whole and for individual companies, though, is the danger in going for a PR splash when you are dealing with issues such as food safety.
Very predictably, William Neuman, the author of the piece in The New York Times, tried to vet the claims Fresh Express was making by calling on a national produce trade association. Quite logically, he called David Gombas, whose position at United Fresh is Senior Vice President for Food Safety and Technology. Did David deliver a ringing endorsement of this new product as a major food safety advance? No, actually, he said he didn’t know anything about it:
Fresh Express is a member of the produce association, but Mr. Gombas said that he was not aware of the company’s plans or the results of its research.
How hard would it have been to give United, PMA and the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement a briefing on the matter so they could speak intelligently about it? Instead, they sound uninformed, and consumer confidence in the competency of the industry was lessened.
In fact, the confidence in FreshRinse was lessened. How much better for the future of the product if reputable scientists and technical experts, not paid or employed by Fresh Express, expressed confidence in the product.
Perhaps this wash will prove desirable. We hope it is a food safety advance. We also hope that companies in the industry will think beyond their immediate interests and think about the delicate condition of consumer and regulatory confidence.
Many thanks to Dan Cohen, Brad Murphy, John Mount and Jan Payne for standing vigil on our scientific content.
The New York Times ran a piece titled, Wal-Mart to Buy More Local Produce, which detailed some new Wal-Mart goals:
In the United States, Wal-Mart plans to double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent. Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state.
Still, the program is far less ambitious than in some other countries — in Canada, for instance, Wal-Mart expects to buy 30 percent of its produce locally by the end of 2013, and, when local produce is available, increase that to 100 percent.
“Our food business in Canada is brand new, so there’s a lot they can do,” said Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability, at a news conference. She said the program allowed each country to set its own specific goals.
In emerging markets, Wal-Mart has pledged to sell $1 billion of food from small and medium farmers (which it defines as farmers with fewer than 20 hectares, about 50 acres). It will also provide training for the farmers and their laborers on how to choose crops that are in demand and on the proper application of water and pesticides.
Both in the United States and globally, Wal-Mart will invest more than $1 billion to improve its supply chain for perishable food. For example, if trucks, trains and distribution centers could help farmers in Minnesota get crops to Wal-Mart more quickly, the result would be less spoiled food, a longer shelf life and presumably more profit for the farmers and for Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart said it planned to reduce food waste in emerging-market stores by 15 percent and in other stores by 10 percent.
There are a lot of goals being conflated here and for the most part it is difficult to know if it means much at all.
Since Wal-Mart defines local as “in state,” there can be massive changes in its local percentages by virtue of changes in its store distribution. The more stores Wal-Mart opens in California, the more “local” it gets, without changing anything about its procurement model.
We are not sure what it means to say that Canada will be 100% local “when local produce is available” — certainly it can’t mean that in the summer, when Canada is in peak production, it will be 100% local — unless Wal-Mart is planning on skipping bananas, citrus, mangos, papaya, pineapple, etc. It also appears that, although in the US, Wal-Mart is defining local as “in state,” in Canada, the whole country is local. Which is odd as, after all, Canada spans a continent.
In developing countries, Wal-Mart is pledging to buy from physically small farms — less than 50 acres. But whatever virtues it sees in this policy, it doesn’t seem to apply to developed countries.
Then there is a reference to “improve its supply chain for perishable food,” with the inference that this will make it easier for farmers to go to market, though it is hard to know what this could possibly mean. Wal-Mart already builds distribution centers wherever it has stores that need distributing to. It costs money every time a box goes through these centers. It seems unlikely Wal-Mart will build, as the Times article states, “trucks, trains and distribution centers,” so produce can be handled a second time.
In fact, all this sounds like a marketing gimmick:
The definition of “local” as “in-state” is pure marketing. Yes, consumer surveys for many years indicate consumers like to root for the home team so there are good reasons to promote this — but it is self-evidently of no import to the environment, flavor or anything else that one may hope to achieve. In fact, it can be counter-productive as it can lead to procuring hundreds of miles away — in-state — as opposed to two steps away across the state border.
Movements like local are often expressions of nationalism. So in the UK, they will wax poetic for local but if you propose imports from France right across the English Channel, they rise in opposition. Canadians also express their independence and nationalism through supporting Canadian farmers. This is the privilege of the citizens of a country. Supplying these preferences is marketing. Wal-Mart is smart to do so. But, just as clearly, for Ontario to avoid New York state produce so it can buy British Columbian produce is not achieving any goal other than marketing.
A billion dollars is a lot of money — but Wal-Mart is a very big company. When Wal-Mart announces it is going to spend a billion dollars on buying from small farms, we suspect that it is already doing it, and that it is more a matter of identifying this than doing it. Perhaps, Wal-Mart will switch the receiver from a vendor so it can directly receive and get credit, perhaps paying the vendor a fee for organizing the effort. Global procurement is, to a large extent, just a way for Wal-Mart to “get credit” by having its name listed as the exporter or importer for product it was already buying. This gives Wal-Mart political power.
The idea mentioned in the article of Wal-Mart building facilities, buying trucks and trains in Minnesota so as to facilitate local produce, is somewhat bizarre. If Wal-Mart wants something — virtually anything — it just has to give out a purchase order and it will happen. It is hard to imagine why Wal-Mart would want to get involved in this micro stuff. Once again, the billion dollar limit makes us see it as a PR stunt, not a serious procurement approach.
The article also revealed Wal-Mart’s plans for the Sustainability Index:
As Wal-Mart is doing with consumer products, it will begin asking agricultural producers questions about water, fertilizer and chemical use. The eventual goal is to include that information in a sustainability index.
Customers would see sustainability ratings, so they could decide whether to choose one avocado over another based on how efficiently it was grown and shipped. Wal-Mart could use index information when it decided from whom to buy.
It is hard to imagine how this would work. First, generally Wal-Mart sells only one offering of each fresh produce item — so it is not likely that all of the sudden, Wal-Mart will offer consumers Hass avocados from five farmers, with each one given an “efficiency” rating so that the consumer can choose.
If there is any choosing to do, it is the Wal-Mart procurement team that will do it, which means they will use the Sustainability Index as a standard to eliminate vendors.
The problem is that “efficiency” is meaningless without context. Imagine one processing operation near an oil field that is flaring off its natural gas because there are no pipelines or liquefaction facilities to get that gas to market. As a result, the natural gas is provided for free and the plant spends very little to use that free gas efficiently. An identical plant, located in a place where natural gas is expensive, spends a lot to reduce its usage of natural gas.
Under Wal-Mart’s plan, processor A will get a low rating and will spend millions to reduce its use so it can get a better score and retain the Wal-Mart business. But this expenditure is, literally, a total waste of money. It is exactly the same thing as burning currency. It doesn’t improve the environment; it doesn’t reduce costs; it accomplishes absolutely nothing.
When Wal-Mart first announced it was surveying producers, we saw this coming and dealt with it here and here.
We also have recently dealt with the Stewardship Index as potentially facilitating this kind of waste as we mentioned here.
In general, the price of goods over time reflects the efficiency with which the goods are produced. If that price has been artificially reduced through public subsidy, say a decision in Venezuela to artificially keep oil prices down, then responding to such a subsidy may be good for the world. But any index that simply notes the “efficiency” with which something is produced will lead to a world poorer than it had to be.
Among the things that those of us at the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS are most proud of regarding The New York Produce Show and Conference is how hard we’ve worked to draw on the intellectual activity of the region. We’ve already highlighted workshops being presented by faculty at Cornell and at Rutgers:
A New Hypothesis On Local: To Boost Sales, Sell It Through Supermarkets… Cornell’s Miguel Gomez Previews His Upcoming Talk At The New York Produce Show And Conference
Rutger’s Professor Ramu Govindasamy To Speak Out At The New York Produce Show And Conference…Research On Asian And Hispanic Produce Marketing On The East Coast Identifies A Profitable Opportunity
We were also enthused to draw on the well regarded Department of Food Marketing at St. Joseph’s University. This workshop will unveil important research on the theme of “Local vs. Organic,” utilizing apples as a case study. The ground-breaking research was conducted by John Stanton, Professor, Department of Food Marketing, Fred Wirth, Associate Professor of the Department of Food Marketing and D.R. Wiley, a specialist in choice theory.
John Stanton is an academic powerhouse, editing the Journal of Food Products Marketing and is the author or co-author of many books, including More Stanton on Food Marketing. He also has a great presentation style and dry wit.
We asked Mira Slott, Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, to learn more about the research John will present:
Q: What is at the heart of your research?
A: Two hot topics on the lips of consumers as well as producers are organic and local. The purpose of the research we did was to try and quantify the value to consumers of organic versus local. We used some reasonably sophisticated statistical techniques, which force consumers to make trade-offs between things. For example, if you ask airplane travelers how important is it your bags are on time, how important are precautionary safety measures, and how important is it that your flight is comfortable, they’ll say everything is important. You need to have relativity.
Q: How did you apply this relativity to your study?
A: We used apples as the subject because the commodity fit the criteria for our model. In theory, with local produce there is too much disparity between various products. Almost everyone buys apples, almost every state grows apples, consumers have options to buy local and organic apples, and the commodity is a common purchase. Apples met all conditions. Even though bananas are the most common, the commodity is imported and there is no locally grown.
Our research found locally produced to be preferable to organic. Local had far more impact in affecting consumer purchase intentions.
Q: Don’t consumers have a wide variance in their understanding and definition of local and organic? Did your research take that into account?
A: We purposely did not define local. We asked people what local meant, which confirmed what you said; some saw local just from the state, others went literally to product produced in the U.S., while some limited the scope to a particular region. For example, in the Philadelphia area, most said the Delaware Valley.
Q: How do you know the consumer’s choice was based solely on whether it was local or organic, and not on other attributes such as quality, price, variety, size, or a retail marketing event such as a visit from a local farmer… Perhaps a consumer might choose organic over local if the price differential fell within a certain range. What if the product was both local and organic… what if the consumer would choose either local or organic over the conventional option, etc.?
A: This was all built into the model. The trade-off analysis forces people to make choices between products by us systematically changing attributes, clearly the production method, local versus non-local, pricing in three ranges, size, textures, crisp or mealy, all these things factor into the equation.
Q: What consumer would choose a mealy apple?
A: We submitted our results to academic journals, and one criticism was who wants mealy? By giving people trade-offs, they never evaluated the attributes; they just had to pick out of choices. We go back and calculate the value of attributes that led to those choices.
Q: What did you learn?
A: In step with government grading, the preferred size was medium. If the apple was too large people didn’t want to eat it. The most expensive apple is the largest, but not necessarily the most preferred.
Q: You say your research showed that people valued local over organic. Were the statistical results notable?
A: More than notable, the difference was dramatic. We did this during the recession, so we were able to look at organic in an environment void of free-spending.
Q: Wouldn’t the fact that consumers were more price-conscious distort and skew the results?
A: Setting up this design for proper combinations is a major effort. It’s a complex statistical model called balanced incomplete block designs. The reason you do that is if you gave people every combination of apples, such that every alternative was available, they’d have 480 different choices. No one actually had to rank more than 6 apples, but we’re able to make statements related to 480 variables.
Q: Could you highlight some of the most intriguing?
A: This paper is going to focus on organic versus local, but our analysis is much broader in scope. We found in an area of apples, three distinct subgroups. One of the subgroups really valued all characteristics — texture, taste, crispness — and was willing to pay more for them. Another group valued health and much more organic and local, and then there were those all about price, the cheapest trumped other attributes. We also segmented by age, income levels, etc.
This was a four-part study. It started with focus groups and we learned a lot. One of the things that surprised me was that many people bought local for food safety reasons because they thought their neighbors wouldn’t poison them.
Perceptions of local varied. People didn’t really understand what organic was. It sounds good but when asked what is it, a popular answer would be no pesticides, but most really don’t understand organic.
The main point of our paper we’ll be discussing at The New York Produce Show and Conference is what impact the attribute of organic and the attribute of local have on consumers’ intentions to buy. Our research hit on a spectrum of issues. We’re trying to analyze all the data still. At our workshop at The New York Produce Show and Conference, if someone wants further investigation, we can talk about it.
The issue of the relevance to consumers of local and organic is not insignificant. We wonder if a lot of it doesn’t draw on a zeitgeist that is heavily influenced by a change in attitude by top chefs. They used to be all crazy for organic. We think the adoption of National Organic Standards made a focus on organic less appealing to chefs — after all, any consumer could buy a bag of Earthbound Farm organic salad and have an organic salad at home. The chef that focused on organic wasn’t really adding value. In contrast, a chef who features tomatoes from “Joe Miller’s Farm” is implying that he has carefully vetted that farm and is thus providing a value that consumers could duplicate only with great difficulty.
Of course, it is also true that marketers need to be cautious in playing to the consumers’ interest in local. If consumers see local like an empty vessel into which they can pour their hopes and dreams, then they will expect local to be cheaper, better tasting, safer, that it will help the environment, etc. — perhaps if local doesn’t deliver on all these dreams, it might cause a change in consumer attitudes down the roads.
In any case, we will be most interested in doing a deep dive into this important research.
If you would like to learn more about The New York Produce Show and Conference, you can do so here.
Register for the event right here.
One of the great things about the The New York Produce Show and Conference is that attendees have an opportunity to broaden their horizons — intellectually and physically — because, in addition to the trade show and conference, the event also includes community exploration in the form of incredible tours. One tour is to the Hunts Point Market, the epicenter of the produce trade in greater New York. Another tour heads down to give attendees a sneak preview of the new Philadelphia Market, a state-of-the art-facility redefining what it means to be a wholesale market — that tour offers an extra dose of sweetness in the form of a visit to a Wegmans store.
We also have a tour of suburban New Jersey retailers and a fantastic New York City tour that includes prominent and innovative retailers and a visit to a unique urban rooftop farm. This is the next big thing with specialized companies now approaching supermarkets to build such facilities on their roofs.
We thought a visit to the Brooklyn Grange — an acre rooftop farm growing commercially in Queens — would be just the kind of “only in New York” experience attendees would value, so we arranged to include it in our Manhattan tour — even though it is just over the bridge in Queens. The New York Times has written about the farm in a piece titled, Six Stories Above Queens, a Fine Spot for a little Farming, and we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to visit the farm and get us a little preview of what we can expect to see on the tour:
Long Island City, New York
Q: What inspired you to develop this innovative and expansive urban rooftop farm project? Spanning close to an acre, dozens of varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs are growing and thriving from a rooftop with a breath-taking view of the Manhattan skyline in the background. Was there a notable moment, or a confluence of different circumstances that pushed you forward in your mission?
A: It was a strong interest in farming coupled with a desire to remain in the city, plus the pure practicality of the project. There are also so many community and environmental benefits, which continued to make the concept feel right.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenges?
A: The greatest challenges are sales and distribution. From the growing side, I’d say dealing with the wind.
Q: You seem to have experience in that regard. Recently on a stormy day, you moved swiftly and purposefully to weather-proof the farm as the wind gusts picked up and the skies were about to burst with torrential rain. What are some of the biggest surprises you’ve discovered as you’re developing this project?
A: Things grow great! Shishito peppers, aji dulce peppers, ruby streaks mustard greens. Also to my surprise was the total domination of flea beetles in July, and the ability of weed seeds to blow up six stories in only about seven days after the installation.
Anastasia Cole, a Brooklyn Grange founder.
Q: On a visit in October, your associate Anastasia Cole pointed out the unusual Italian Cucuzza squash that grows really long. Also in season at that time, spinach was back, wild arugula, carrots, French breakfast radishes, end-of-the-season tomato varieties, eggplant, sweet peppers, hot peppers, mixed lettuces and herbs, including Thai basil, thyme and rosemary. There was also a purple tomatillo that tasted like a plum. What else could you tell us that might surprise people in the produce industry?
A: I think the produce industry might be surprised at how much volume we can grow, especially salad greens in the spring. There are hundreds of thousands of plants on the roof and we farm about nine months of the year. [The 40,000-square-foot farm is made up of roughly 1.2 million pounds of soil and over 20,000 linear feet of green roofing material). We also pick everything the same day that we deliver to our chefs.
Q: Tell us about your customers, and the types of potential customers that could benefit from your operation…
A: Our operation is split between our markets (direct to consumer) and restaurants/retail. Markets make up about 40 percent of our sales, while restaurants and retail establishments are about 60 percent. Chefs are very fun and exciting to deal with, however we struggle to keep up with the sales and service side, due to limited time and transport resources.
Q: How unique is Brooklyn Grange? Are there other projects popping up like this in the region, and around the country?
A: It is one of a kind right now. No commercial operation of this scale exists currently. Hydroponics operations are being sized and considered.
Brooklyn Grange intern Hayley Knafel.
Q: One of your interns, Hayley Knafel, an environmental studies major at New York University, shared her perspective. She said she’s uplifted by the opportunity, every time she looks out from Brooklyn Grange at all the other rooftops across the City landscape. Where do you see the most untapped potential for urban farming?
A: Roofs in very dense cities. It may not make as much sense in less dense cities with less expensive land near to the city centers.
Q: Are there other related or unrelated projects that have sparked your interest?
A: Hydroponic projects. I’m interested in trying to curb hydro to make it more environmental, and produce more flavorful produce, and then I would be interested in testing it.
Q: What do you envision five years from now for Brooklyn Grange and for urban farming in a broader realm?
A: I want to prove that this will be a viable commercial operation, and then help to improve our food system, whilwhile carrying out an enjoyable career doing something that I love, which is farming.
The Momma Pundit might be embarrassed that we mention this — especially as she and the Poppa Pundit are planning on being at the show — but in her childhood days she lived for awhile on a goat farm in Queens. Little did she know that agriculture would return to what is now such an urbanized area.
If you are interested in signing up for The New York Produce Show and Conference, you can learn about the event here.
You can register online here.
Or if you would like to just go on a tour or add a tour to your existing registration use this PDF here.
The New York Produce Show and Conference is a serious, work-related event. A top retail panel, many workshops and seminars, important networking events, informative tours and a sold-out trade show. It will certainly be pleasant, but the attendees are there to work.
Spouses and companions, though, are sometimes free to simply enjoy the City. The New York Produce Show and Conference is helping to facilitate this by offering a wonderful spouse/companion program.
The program has three components:
First, registrants in the Spouse/Companion Program are free to attend any event at The New York Produce Show and Conference. This includes entry to the opening reception, the keynote breakfast, seminars, workshops, cooking demos and the trade show itself. Only the bus tours are additional.
Second, Spouse/Companion registrants receive exclusive use of a suite set aside to be “ground central” for a New York exploration. The suite serves a continental breakfast, refreshing beverages and an assortment of petit fours, tea sandwiches and, of course, fresh fruit and vegetables throughout the day. Manicures, pedicures and chair massages are also available.
Third, participants will enjoy an out-of-hotel experience. Starting out with a morning shopping expedition to experience Manhattan’s most unique retail stores, including a visit to the world renowned Bergdorf Goodman and the flagship store for Tiffany & Co., there will also be an exclusive coach serving the program participants to take the registrants on a whirlwind tour — get on and off as you please or stay with the group — to top museums, historical sites, Chinatown, Little Italy and much more.
The Pundit and Mrs. Pundit both have fond memories of The Plaza — it was where we got married.
So when Mrs. Pundit took up the job of organizing the spouse/companion program for The New York Produce Show and Conference, it is no surprise that she selected High Tea in The Palm Court at The Plaza as a highlight of the day — all complimentary as part of the program.
The New York Produce Show and Conference is a fabulous opportunity to work hard and play hard. If your spouse or companion is able to join you in New York, you may well want to consider this very special program.
You can learn about the event here.
And register for the spouse/companion program here.
Last year, the industry had an extensive discussion on the possibility of using generic promotion to increase consumption. PMA announced an initiative with NRA and IFDA to double consumption in foodservice over the next ten (now nine) years. We wrote about that initiative in Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS here and here.
This is all good stuff. But if we don’t get the product right then no marketing campaign will matter. Last year, Bill Vogel, President of Tavilla Sales LA, pointed this out to us in a letter we mentioned here. And we recently pointed out a problem with apples here and here.
Now we have an issue that approaches consumer fraud and is really damaging the industry, so we hope that the industry and retailers will step up to stop it.
The issue has to do with sweet onions. There is no legal definition for this term and that leaves it subject to abuse. Basically there are three types of sweet onions at supermarkets today. One is the true “short-day” sweet onion, grown where it is best grown and at its peak of flavor. Second, are true sweet varieties but being grown out of optimal areas and so stretching the genetics with an impact on the flavor. Third, there are lots of onions that are marketed as “sweet” but are not; they are just regular onions with a label.
The problem is that in a world where there are no legal standards, individual buyers, often not true onion experts and with orders to get suppliers to compete on price, require procurement specs to constrain their supply chain or they will inevitably buy some cheap onions with a sweet sticker — and disappoint consumers.
One could imagine three solutions:
The USDA could take the project on and define “Sweet Onion” and make it illegal to sell other onions as such.
The “sweet onion” industry could agree to a definition, coordinate on a trademark and allow all onions that meet that standard to use the mark. So companies could continue to use their own brands but also have a “Certified” logo for use in marketing.
Retailers, of course, can move fastest. Retailers also should be most concerned about selling consumers something that isn’t so. The key is to develop a spec for sweet onions so that the buyer is not free to buy anything with a label on it that says “sweet.” In Australia, the industry has actually gone as far as to certify certain fields so as to avoid this problem.
The problem is obvious. Completely aside from the fact that we are ripping off our customers if we promise one thing and deliver another, consumers who would like a sweet onion will think they don’t like onions at all and will stop buying them.
That is a loss for consumers, onions growers, retailers and the industry at large. Let’s do something about it.