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

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 5, 2010

Our piece, Sweet Onion Fraud, has touched off a serious search for a better way to identify and market sweet onions. The goal for the industry is really a form of enlightened self-interest. We need to protect consumers against being defrauded by onions marketed as “sweet” but that really are not. Of course, this is the right thing to do no matter the consequences. As it happens, however, selling consumers who elect to buy sweet onions a product that consistently pleases them is bound to increase consumption.

The piece was quickly followed by another we titled, Pundit’s Mailbag — Retail Specifications Needed for Sweet Onions. That piece included letters from Ralph J. Schwartz of Potandon Produce and Richard A Eastes of Rixx Intl. Marketing Co., with Ralph’s letter applauding our call for standards in the sweet onion category and Rick’s missive focused on pointing out how other participants in the industry, such as tree fruit growers, had wrestled with similar issues.

Today we have an important player in onion marketing weighing in to help clarify the discussion:

Thank you for the bringing to light the issue of legitimate sweet onions.

The sweet onion industry has gone through significant changes in the past 10 years. The category has grown tremendously and the ability to grow sweet onions in many regions has changed the traditional view of the sweet onions.

It is interesting that you write about this topic during this time of year. The fall season is the time where more domestic-producing sweet onion regions have been developed to compete against imported sweets. It’s likely that we wouldn’t be having this discussion if these new domestic sweet onion varieties, which do achieve the “Certified Sweet” distinction from National Onion Labs, had the same shape as traditional sweet onions. However, many of these varieties have the same bulb shape as standard onions vs. the more flattened shape of many sweet varieties.

These new varieties — grown in the right climate, the right soil and by the right growers — create a sweet onion that has changed the category to allow domestic suppliers to be a real option for retailers. With this category change and the appearance of the onion being more of a darker skinned onion, it has also created the opportunity for so called ‘fraudulent onions’ to reach the market. We have seen many shippers start planting “sweet onions” in traditional storage onion production areas and label them as sweets. We have even seen storage variety onions being labeled at sweets.

To be fair, the new category of sweets is not the only culprit. Imported onions and some of the traditional growing areas of sweet onions can fail to be “Certified”. Sweet onions are not just determined by being a short-day variety and harvested during the peak of season. Some short-day sweet onions have the same taste profile of the hottest long-day onions. Some intermediate short-day and long-day onions have very nice sweet onion flavor profiles. The flavor profile of an onion is determined by a number of factors, with pyruvic acid being most focused upon.

Many customers believe the lower the pyruvic acid, the sweeter the onion. Unfortunately that is not the case. There are other reactions of metabolites that can yield bitter, metabolic or cabbage-like flavors. Texture needs to be another area of focus, in addition to the different types of sugar (glucose, fructose and sucrose), which uniquely varies in each variety of onion and each type of sugar adds a different “sweetness” to an onion. We cannot forget the variability of lachrymatory factory otherwise known as LF gas, which causes eye irritation or tears. All of these factors in a nutshell determine sweetness.

Third Party testing has been around for some time and does provide a science-based filter to what is sweet and what isn’t. Future testing will be the multiplier in quickly assessing sweetness. The onion industry has met a number of cross roads regarding whether or not we should test onions. Cost has been a significant factor, and shippers are not often rewarded for having their fields tested as FOB pricing doesn’t typically reflect the increased cost.

Numerous retailers have expressed interest in the testing, but oftentimes, unless they’re one of your true partners, you end up competing on a pure FOB basis and the extra $.25 to $.50 per 40# carton for testing can be a serious expense to justify. That being said, when certification is done as a united industry, it can strengthen a brand and a program. Four years ago, the sweet onion industry had a major victory when the Georgia Department of Agriculture successfully won a lawsuit to allow certification of the trademarked sweet Vidalia onions.

As we look for solutions going forward, the true comparative for our product could very well be the salsa industry. Most retailers carry three classifications of salsa; mild, medium or hot. Is there room to do the same thing with sweet onions? Currently retailers carry traditional hybrid onions or sweet onions. Sweet onions typically carry a higher price. Hybrid onions are typically the value selection.

If we enter into a new category of mild onions, will that help the category or cannibalize another section? Is the consumer educated enough to understand the difference on how to use the onion? Do consumers buy sweet onions because of the flavor or do they want an onion that won’t make them tear up?

Currently most of our retail customers are serious about trying to carry a truly sweet onion. Many have their own internal taste tests. One idea for the system of the future has a lot to do with science. The need for a cost-effective test that truly assesses the whole sweet onion to ensure a consistent pleasurable eating experience would benefit all parties.

This test can provide the security we are looking for and make sure that all sweet onions are truly sweet onions. One way in getting us there is the cooperation of third-party certification services (that provide the appropriate testing) and retailers. They will drive the change needed to make this a reality.

The thing to keep in mind is that variety development will continue to blur the distinction between traditional sweet onion production areas and the rapidly expanding growing regions and ‘sweet onion varieties’ that continue to be developed. Ultimately, if we work together from the field to the final consumer and deliver great eating onions, the industry will be the winner because of it.

— Matt Curry
President
Curry & Co.
Brooks, Oregon

Matt’s letter is thoughtful and points to three very important ideas: First, it seems that testing is crucial in assuring that onions are truly sweet, but that current testing methods are pricey. Yet if sweetness can only be assured through testing, then retailers who refuse to require tests are choosing to buy blind.

Whether retailers should agree to pay more to get onions tested strikes us as the wrong way to ask the question. It is not so much that retailers should, a priori, agree to pay more; it is more that retailers should agree to constrain their supply chain by only agreeing to buy and market sweet onions that have, in fact, been tested. In all likelihood, over time, the producers will get a return on their investment in testing. The problem is that if there is an option to buy untested onions, growers and shippers are then thrown into competition with a different category of product. Growers rarely get hurt by high retail standards, but good ones always get hurt by inconsistent retail standards for procurement.

Second, the salsa model borders on brilliance. If it can work, consumers would have more choice and retailers would have more satisfied customers. Sales for everyone would rise. What we are uncertain of, however, is whether sweetness in an onion is really preferred by customers on a continuum as they do salsa. Maybe consumers choose different onions based on their intended purpose?

Third, as research advances, things will change, and we need the kind of standards that can be useful even in the face of changing conditions.

Whatever the challenges, one thing is clear: We are breaking faith with our consumers and hurting consumption levels if we don’t act. The sooner, the better.

Many thanks to Matt Curry for weighing in on this important issue.

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