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Bottom Line On Local: Geography Does Not Determine Taste

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 5, 2010

We’ve had many occasions to publish the thoughts of Eric Schwartz, who now is the President and CEO of a leading processor of frozen vegetables, but has had a number of prominent roles in the fresh industry. His contributions include these:

Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry: Dole Vegetables’ Eric Schwartz

Pundit’s Mailbag — How About Subsidy Money For GTIN Conversion?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Dole’s Schwartz Comments On Silent Buyers

Pundit’s Mailbag — More Questions About Leafy Greens Board

Pundit’s Mailbag — The Deadline Approaches

Pundit’s Mailbag — Organic Industry’s ‘Situational’ Standard

Single Step Award Winner — Eric Schwartz Of Dole Vegetables

Our piece questioning whether sales of “local” were actually booming — titled Waiting For The Dust To Settle On Sales Of Locally Grown — led Eric to send this note:

Having managed some of the largest fresh produce companies, I can tell you we never fully resolved the puzzle of shipping for shelf life as opposed to shipping for taste. This is often overlooked or down-played when trying to understand a consumer’s perception of whether or not locally grown really does taste better than produce from some distant place. A melon shipped from the west coast to Boston can’t be picked at the peak of ripeness because it won’t make the distribution time table before it starts to turn. On the other hand, a locally grown melon can be picked at the peak of freshness and taste and be in the consumers’ hands in a matter of hours.

I am not trying to generalize all fresh produce in this way, but it is an opportunity that could drive incremental consumption if producers focused more on the issue of taste as opposed to shelf life in product development. Consumers won’t continue to buy something if they don’t like how it tastes, no matter how healthy, or how cheap it is. Granted, we have our challenges in other ways on the frozen side, but harvesting at the peak of freshness is not one of them because we can lock “local” in for some future time to enjoy.

— Eric Schwartz
President and Chief Executive Officer
Patterson Vegetable Company
Patterson, California

The theoretical advantage that local may have on providing peak-of-the-season freshness is not likely to play out in fresh in reality.

First there is the obvious issue of seasonality. Let us assume that some Boston resident could actually get a peak-tasting melon from a Massachusetts farmer — for how long could he do this? Perhaps in August and September? The other 10 months of the year still have to be supplied from distant points.

Second is the issue of cost. Federal Express taught us that the cheapest way to get a package from Cambridge to Brookline was to send it on a fully loaded plane to its Memphis hub and back again on another fully loaded plane. People don’t realize how often California companies that have developed operations regionally find the least expensive way to ship is not to send 50 boxes to Boston, but to send a straight trailer of product to California, then ship a consolidated load to the east coast. This tremendous savings means that the local and regional vision is also often very expensive.

Third, the flavor issue seems to only really play out on a few items: Tree fruit, melons, and tomatoes — perhaps a few others. But it is not clear that, say, most vegetables are affected by this at all.

Fourth, we have to be careful not to compare an ideal with reality. We all know the flaws of the conventional produce distribution system and we all know that, hypothetically, a melon can be picked at the peak of ripeness and then hand-delivered to a consumer. But we suspect the reality is nothing so appealing.

Go to a farmer’s market and see the luscious produce spread out on a table sitting unrefrigerated all day long. Be there at close and watch the farmers pack up the unsold produce to sell somewhere else the next day.

In fact, few local growers can pick at the peak of ripeness because they too have a distribution channel, and consumers still require shelf life at home. This is especially true if they are not selling consumer-direct.

Besides, farming — even small scale farming — is different than gardening. Farmers have to deal with capacity to harvest and with the need to minimize labor. A gardener can go out and eye each tomato or every peach and wait to pick them one by one — but even small farmers rarely can do that.

And whatever advantages small local farmers may gain from geography, they often lose in other ways. How many have the capacity to cool down produce after picking? If they can’t gain a little shelf life that way, maybe they still have to pick a little early to go through a wholesaler who will sell it to a retailer, who has to get it to the stores with life left for the consumer at home.

In fact, whatever its theoretical advantage in taste, there is precious little evidence that local actually tastes better than nationally shipped produce.

Nation’s Restaurant News did a little experiment in which it had three chefs do a blind taste test on a range of local items including produce, poultry and wine. The results belie this notion that local is, in practice, always so tasty:

A blind taste test comparing local and non-local food and wine resulted in some surprises recently.

Nation’s Restaurant News gathered a panel of chefs at Elements restaurant in Princeton, N.J., and compared two prune plums — one from a supermarket and one locally grown — an organic chicken from Colorado and another organic one raised on a central new Jersey farm, the hearts from those two birds, and lamb grown on an organic farm in central New Jersey served beside a Colorado lamb bought at a supermarket.

So did the chefs assess the locally grown produce? It might surprise some:

One set of plums was a little riper than the other. But still, the riper fruit was bought at the farmers market and the panel thought they tasted a bit over the hill, so the tasters assumed they were from the supermarket and had sat there for too long.

In fact, bigger operations often can turn product faster, resulting in fresher food. In this case, it was the farmer who had sold older fruit. It was brought a day before the tasting around the corner from Elements at a popup farmers market.

The tasting sparked a debate among the panelists on how to tell local products from food shipped from farther away. They assumed that the local items should taste better, but time after time, that wasn’t the case.

The bottom line is that geography does not determine taste. Theoretical advantages don’t necessarily translate into actual advantages, and the national shipping industry should not readily concede on the battle to provide consumers with the best taste.

Many thanks to Eric Schwartz for weighing in on this important issue.

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