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Sweet Onion Fraud

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 21, 2010

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:

  1. The USDA could take the project on and define “Sweet Onion” and make it illegal to sell other onions as such.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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