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Produce Business

Deli Business

American Food & Ag Exporter

Cheese Connoisseur

Bottom Line On Local: Geography Does Not Determine Taste

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.

When In New York… Meet The Vegetable Butcher At Mario Batali’s Eataly

When we sat down to design the program that came to be known as The New York Produce Show and Conference, we knew that it would be a horrible shame, maybe even a sin, to bring so many people to the Big Apple and have them spend the whole time in a hotel or convention center.

Thus was born a tour program running from Philadelphia to New York. It has attracted about equal numbers of out-of-towners and people from the region. Some are going to Hunts Point to see a the largest wholesale produce market in the country; some are going to Philadelphia to see the newest wholesale produce market in the country in its high-powered suburban New York version, with a tour of North Jersey retailers.

While others want to see a kind of retailing that really doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in America, and so have selected the Manhattan Retail tour. Of course, we already highlighted that we would do a quick side trip on this tour to Queens to see an exceptional example of rooftop urban farming. We called the piece Rooftop Farm Just Part Of The New York Experience.

The tour is incredibly diverse, highlighting an urban interpretation of Whole Foods; presenting the quintessentially New York experience with Fairway; a Food Emporium that feels like a cathedral as it is nestled in the arches supporting the 59th Street Bridge and we’ll visit a D’Agostinos and see what happens when a family has its name on the door.

It is not unusual that the most anticipated stop on the tour should be the newest food concept — Eataly. As a result of a special tour arranged by the folks at Baldor, an important supplier to the new concept, attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference can get to see this sister to the Eataly in Turin. That store, operating in a city with a million residents, attracts two-and-a-half million visitors each year. In contrast, New York City has over eight million residents and almost fifty million tourists and visitors each year.

Eataly was founded by Oscar Farinetti, who established the original Turin store, Mario Batali and his longtime partner in restaurants, Joe Bastianich, who also serves as a co-host on Fox’s MasterChef, plus Bastianich’s mother Lidia, who is a pretty impressive food personality in her own right.

The store has incredible things for all departments, but for produce it has something unique — but maybe not for long — America’s first vegetable butcher. Jennifer Rubell has a famous uncle, Steve Rubell, who founded Studio 54, the iconic disco club. And she turns food into art. Here is an example of how she interpreted the American Breakfast:

Self-serve bananas make up her American Morning
(photo by Jennifer Rubell)

Rubell masterminded the job of Vegetable Butcher at Eataly. What does this mean? We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out:

Jennifer Rubell
Food Artist, Chef, and
Vegetable Butcher
New York, New York

Q: Your background is quite colorful. How did you brainstorm the idea of a Vegetable Butcher?

A: Mario and I were on our second or third bottle of wine at Del Posto (it just received four stars in the New York Times), a few months before Eataly was set to open. We were talking about Eataly and vegetables for three hours over the best roast chicken I ever had in my life. We wanted a way for people to engage with vegetables that was new and fun, and we played with the amusing concept of a Vegetable Butcher.

It was an enjoyable evening to say the least, but I figured once the affects of the wine wore off so would the off-the-wall idea, and then Mario calls me up the next day, “I know you’re very busy with other projects, but I need you to come to Eataly as our first Vegetable Butcher, and hire and train more Vegetable Butchers.”

I was here full time the first month, 15 hours a day, but I’ve hired a bunch of Vegetable Butchers and trained them. They’re amazing, better than I could ever be.

Q: What does a Vegetable Butcher’s job entail?

A: First thing in the morning, I walk around the produce department to see what’s abundant and in season. Today, it’s not as much about what is local, but now things are coming in from around the world. [Rubell reaches for Australian blood oranges to bring over to the Vegetable Butcher station].

Q: How do you assist customers in sorting through the myriad varieties?

A: I bring things home to experiment within New York City kitchen needs. It’s different cooking without all the commercial, high-tech equipment in Eataly. Sometimes, it’s harder to cook in smaller quantities.

Q: What are some of your favorite creations?

A: People usually don’t realize the way Brussels sprouts grow. [she points to stalks of Brussels sprouts standing tall in a beautiful display]. I set the oven at 375 degrees, rub the stock of Brussels sprouts with olive oil and salt, and put in the oven for 40 minutes to roast like a rack of lamb. Every one of the Brussels sprouts is roasted perfectly on the outside and deliciously soft on the inside.

Vegetables don’t usually feel like a hero at the table, but you bring out this like a roast to the table and it’s a rock star. In my entire time as Vegetable Butcher, this is my most proud moment, coming up with my Brussels sprouts recipe. My daughter is five years old and she loves it. It’s a short season for the farmers, though, just about a month.

Q: How important is local produce here?

A: Local tastes better. It’s not that vegetables grown here are better than those in California, but if they were picked last week maybe under-ripe to prolong shelf life compared to items picked fresh and brought in daily, the result in a taste test favors local. But availability on certain products is really limited to July, August, and a little part of September. I’d much rather have field-grown than greenhouse-grown.

My interest in local has to do with my desire to support local farmers. An argument can be made that local doesn’t always reduce carbon footprints due to other factors in the supply chain and production process, but I still believe there is tremendous value to eating local food. The main thing is having a balanced approach. For example, we import wonderful Italian chestnuts that have a special flavor, a massive difference in taste from Chinese chestnuts.

Q: How does Italian culture fit into the Eataly experience?

A: The way Italians shop is they see what looks good. Americans follow a shopping list and are more directed and less exploratory. I like to buy what’s best in season and keep it simple…olive oil, salt and pepper. Have a raw crudite with Baby Romanesca Cauliflower aren’t they beautiful, a taste between cauliflower and broccoli. It’s good to cook with pasta sautéed with anchovies and toss. [Editor’s note: Mario Batali, owner of Eataly, stops by and joins Jennifer Rubell in helping a customer discern the difference between marjoram and oregeno: “Oregano and marjoram are from the same family but not the same thing. Pinch the herb and you can tell,” says Rubell. Batali is quick to add, “Marjoram is much more sexually perfumed. Oregano is intensifying, but marjoram is much tastier…”]

Mario Batali with Jennifer Rubell

Q: Continuing our tour of the produce department, what other tips could you share before we head over to your Vegetable Butcher station?

A: Italian pine nuts, long and thin, produce a totally different flavor if making pesto. They cost $5 a pound, but you’re getting an amazing flavor so it’s well worth it. People will spend $20 for meat without a second thought. At Eataly, we refer to the Mario Revolution, a philosophy of using fresh ingredients in a straight-forward, direct approach, with nothing overwrought. If pumpkin is in season and the ingredient is indigenous to the U.S., Mario will incorporate it the way an Italian would.

The restaurants serve as a showcase for produce. It’s not about wowing you with fireworks. To de-nature the food is very un-Italian. Eataly focuses on the Italian way of living. When we opened our doors, people came in and said, “You don’t have prepared food?” In traditional Italian culture, this is not the way. It’s a Manhattan city thing to get ready-made food in a plastic container to eat. Eataly gives people an oasis from this grab-and-go mentality.

Q: What role does the Vegetable Butcher play?

A: The customers come in and grab the vegetables they want; they weigh them and bring them over to the Vegetable Butcher station for chopping or tips on preparation. I show how you can trim the baby artichokes and eat the hearts. We usually peel the baby artichokes all day so you can just pick up some here.

Getting kids to eat vegetables is just a matter of exposure. It makes no sense saying kids don’t like them. It’s a big mistake to hide them in their food or shove vegetables down their throats — rather it makes sense to teach them an approach to eating. My daughter enjoys Kohlrabi root, a bulb we cut in sticks and dip in salt, or carrots in cumin. She’s part of the process, going to the spice rack and experimenting, mixing soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and Asian spices to make a sauce.

There’s no wrong, and she has a whole group of recipes she’s created. I put my daughter to work shelling the beans. Parents need to stop saying, “If you eat your mushrooms, you can have dessert.” Your whole life you develop taste. Parents need to eat with their children, and it’s OK if they don’t like something.

Sometimes customers come here last, saying they just picked up fish for dinner. We don’t choose their vegetables but tell them what to look for — the qualities — and they bring the vegetables to us. It could be something simple like potatoes for roasting and we’ll talk about leaving the skin on to give more dimension and texture.

Q: So Vegetable Butchers are not only proficient in chopping and slicing but also in their abilities as chefs?

A: Everyone who is a vegetable butcher is trained as a cook as well. Behind us, in the vegetable restaurant, they make what’s in season and, today, I suggest the spaghetti squash special. The Vegetable Butcher station is the most educational area. It makes people more comfortable.

Even though vegetables are the most simple to cook, they are the least ready to cook. A piece of meat is cut and ready to grill. The role of the Vegetable Butcher is to peel and cut the eggplant. There are ways for cutting even something like an avocado. It’s not magic, but Mario shows us tricks. [Editor’s note: Rubell leaves her station to select some avocados for a demonstration. As she goes to cut the first one, she’s not satisfied with its ripeness so tosses it aside.]

Ninety percent of cooking good vegetables is buying good vegetables. Avocados are a sensitive vegetable. One thing about vegetables is not to be smug.

Q: Please elaborate…

A: Celery root is totally intimidating, so people will walk right by it. Sometimes it’s just a matter of showing people that preparing celery root is the simplest thing to do. We would be lucky to sell one a week, but when we cut it up and put it in a salad we sell three boxes a day. I have a fantastic cutting technique. From the outside, the celery root looks like a brain and appears totally impenetrable, but inside it’s completely edible and tastes slightly citrusy without the green annoying taste or texture of celery. It’s not intimidating because it’s rare or expensive, but because it’s unfamiliar. I’m making a salad with celery root, lemon, parmesano, salt and pepper. The idea is that people come here with their vegetables, then go buy prosciutto and cheese and come back and it’s all ready for them.

Q: Have you received any unusual requests from customers?

A: We try to manage people’s expectations. All Vegetable Butchers get unusual propositions. This couple came in and wanted a Vegetable Butcher to work at their house. After October, I’ll be leaving my post as Vegetable Butcher to work on my conceptual art food projects, but Eataly will have a total of four Vegetables Butchers to carry on, including Milan Pizzicarolo, working with me today.

[Editor’s note: Milan Pizzicarolo, who’s been doing the job for about a month, says he loves it. “We split the shifts, eight hours per day. It involves vigorous chopping, but I find it can be a soothing job sometimes, and I get to interact with people,” says Pizzicarolo. “I’ve worked in several Italian restaurants, French Bistros, and own a catering service. The next best thing to cooking for people is giving them tips,” he continues. “We’re all opinionated and from all different backgrounds — I’m half Italian and half Jamaican — so we provide our customers with all kinds of different preparations and ideas, and we learn things from our customers too.]

Q: Jennifer, it sounds like you’re leaving the Vegetable Butcher station in excellent hands. As you pursue your new conceptual food art projects, will any involve produce?

A: I’m talking to someone now about a very, very large produce project, but I can’t share more details about it right now. One of my interactive displays had 21-year-old apple trees cut down from a farm in Long Island, and the apples that fell off the tree along the way people could eat. Another exhibit included 2,400 pounds of bananas. Produce is involved in everything I do.

There is something quite intriguing in this concept. Most produce departments see service as a side effect of stocking. In other words, labor is scheduled not to help customers but to keep the shelves filled; then stores hope that the stockers can be useful in providing customer service.

The concept of a Vegetable Butcher puts the customer first.

Then, of course, Jennifer is so eminently sensible. We’ve written here about the issues related to trying to hide produce in your children’s food, and Jennifer dismisses the whole idea. She likes local, but rejoices in wonderful produce from around the world.

New York is atypical, and Eataly is atypical for New York. Still mainstream operators identify good ideas from all kinds of stores, and shippers can profitably question some assumptions when confronted with a new concept. For example, the store does not sell little plastic containers of prepared foods, but its Vegetable Butchers help consumers to make preparation easy.

If you would like to get more information about The New York Produce Show and Conference, you can find it here.

And if you would like to register for the whole event, you can do so here.

If you are local and can’t do the whole show but just want to sign up for the tour, you can do so here.

Dr. Johan Van Deventer Travels From South Africa To Join Thought Leaders Panel at The New York Produce Show And Conference

When we began the planning for the program content of The New York Produce Show and Conference we knew from the start that rather than focusing on any one individual, we wanted the “keynote” to be a large panel representing the breadth and diversity of the region.

We certainly achieved that with a dynamic nine-person panel:

Jim Bisogno Pathmark Supermarkets

Rich Conger King Kullen Supermarkets

Steve Coomes Safeway Eastern Division

Dave Corsi Wegmans Food Markets

Dean Holmquist Foodtown Supermarkets

Derrick Jenkins Wakefern Food Corporation

Paul Kneeland Kings Super Markets

Dominick Pelosi Food Emporium

John Vasapolli D’Agostino Supermarkets

Yet if part of what the event is all about is gathering the best and brightest from within the region to illustrate the achievement of the produce community in the northeast, another part is testing the way things are done in the region against the way things are done elsewhere in the country and, indeed, around the world.

So we are pleased to announce that completing our “Thought Leaders” panel is an industry leader who is traveling from the Southern Hemisphere to provide a completely different perspective to our panel. In fact, his perspective is so intriguing and so different that he has generously agreed to pay a dual role. After joining our “Thought Leaders” panel at the Keynote Breakfast, he has agreed to conduct an educational micro-session at 2:15 p.m. in the Trianon Rendezvous Ballroom at the New York Hilton. He is traveling half-way across the world brimming with photos to show what retailing fresh produce is like in Africa today.

We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Dr. Johan Van Deventer
Managing Director
Freshmark, Subsidiary of the
Shoprite Group
Western Cape, South Africa

Q: We are looking forward to garnering your insight at the inaugural edition of The New York Produce Show & Conference. As a preview, could you tell us a little about your background?

A: My grandfather used to farm vegetables, and I was responsible on the farmer’s market to sell the product. I learned a few things, how to pack, and how consumers see product value for money — so I learned to effectively trade and not take product back home. In my school days, I went to university and studied for a commercial degree in economics, and then completed the doctorate degree. I started to work at our Department of Agriculture and I was nominated on the advisory committee to the Minister of Agriculture, a great experience when I wasn’t even 30-years-old. I was responsible for all 14 national fresh produce markets in South Africa, traveled a lot, and started to learn the industry well in a practical way. It gave me a national perspective as I traveled all of the market areas.

Q: How did you capitalize on that experience in the retail world?

A: I moved to the Johannesburg market as deputy director. Johannesburg still today is the largest wholesale produce market in the Southern Hemisphere. Then from there, some 18 years ago, I started at Freshmark, part of the Shoprite group of companies. Shoprite is the largest retailer in Africa today.

At Freshmark, I worked my way from a distribution center manager to the position I hold today. I am responsible to supply all the fruits and vegetables to the Shoprite brand and our other brands, Checkers, Checkers Hyper, Usave, and Ok Foods; it’s about a 1,000 stores. Added to my duties are 16 other African countries. That has been an experience of its own. It’s huge.

If you asked me what has been really exciting in the past few years, it is two things: The move into other African countries and the move to broaden our reach in South Africa itself. There have been all kinds of challenges.

Q: Will Wal-Mart’s anticipated penetration shake things up?

A: Wal-Mart is busy in South Africa. It’s in the process of closing a deal to buy a controlling stake in Massmart, and I think it will go through. The latest news is that Wal-Mart is not going to takeover 100 percent of the shares. In the end, it will probably be a joint venture of some sort. It seems to be going in that direction.

Massmart, a discount retailer in a lot of African countries, has three brands — Metro, Dion, and Game. It’s more or less the same business Wal-Mart is known for, white goods. Massmart does carry groceries but is not so strong in the perishable departments. There is Pick n Pay, and a group Fruit and Vegetable City, and Woolworths, and Spar, strong in Europe. These are my competitors. Pick n Pay is expediting expansion in anticipation of tough competition from Wal-Mart. (African Business News (ABN) article.). We think our strategy will keep us strong.

Q: Tell us more about Freshmark’s operation…What is it like to do business in South Africa? Do you confront some of the same issues as in the U.S.?

A: While we are a subsidiary of the Shoprite group, we are an independent business unit (sales of $2.5 million US per day). Our responsibility is channeled through six distribution centers in South Africa, the main one in the Johannesburg area accounts for 40 percent of our business. I’m sitting in Cape Town’s Freshmark office, and the Shoprite office also is in Capetown.

We procure product from 550 farmer/suppliers in various climate zones, and differ on where we draw product based on the time of the year, which is the normal thing. We work on good relations with these suppliers long term. It is not our policy to chop and change. The majority of our farmers are with us all the years. We put a premium on this philosophy: Don’t fool around with suppliers.

Of course, they have to conform to standards, but we’re not arrogant. We would rather help someone obtain higher food safety standards rather than say this is your last day.

Q: Could you elaborate on food safety aspects? In the U.S., new proposed government food safety regulations would require local farmers to abide by the same food safety standards as large companies.

A: In South Africa, the government is going to implement a new consumer protection act. For many years, we have our own food safety standards, which are higher than what government or legislation requires. That is something we agree upon when we sign up a new grower, and all the growers have signed the agreement. We also have GlobalGAP.

Q: In the U.S., not all retailers are willing or able to provide such supplier security or loyalty. Is this an issue in Africa as well?

A: That is one of the differences for us, compared to our opposition. Our procurement program and the way we work with suppliers is different from how they do it. We also prefer to have meetings on the farm and not at the head office of Freshmark. We go to the farms, and the procurement officer’s job is to plan there, understand the farm better and understand what farmers need.

Come to our distribution centers; if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. They look like the ones in America. State-of-the-art refrigeration, we ripen bananas and avocados using the same technology as you find in America and Europe. Of course, we have our inspections on food safety from independent authorities. We also have testing done by independent laboratories. And we have our own trucks distributing every day.

Q: How does your relationship with Shoprite work exactly?

A: We have a “push” process. We at Freshmark are not just a service provider to the retailer; we are an independent business to the group. We must sell as hard as an independent does, go to the retailer and promote. We have new summer fruit and innovative packaging.

They have to believe in us and we work hard for our orders. It’s the same with quality… if the Shoprite is not happy, they can put a claim against us; if it’s not on time, we incur certain penalties. It is one company, but I do get penalized if products are not up to standards. We’re also independent when it comes to results. I have a financial director, a human resources director.

Freshmark has been owned by Shoprite, but except for that, it’s independent. If you go to meat procurement, the meat market is doing the same thing as me. We have our own bottom line, and compensation, shares, bonus, etc., are coupled to performance.

The Shoprite group makes use of the AC Nielsen report, which will tell you your market share. We’re measured — are you growing against rivals or competition — and there is pressure on us for new product, to be fresh in season, normal competition to keep you ahead of the other players.

Q: How is Shoprite positioned in the marketplace? Could you describe your customer base?

A: Price is very important. Shoprite is known for price where Woolworths is known more for quality.

Q: Would you say ShopRite parallels Wal-Mart in that regard?

A: Bruce Peterson was here some years ago and met with me and the previous managing director of Freshmark. He saw Wal-Mart comparable price-wise to Shoprite, middle income, but we also go to bottom lower income.

Q: How has the transition from Apartheid affected your goals of reaching poorer people?

A: Before 1994, when President Mandela was elected in the first democratic election for everybody in South Africa, Apartheid was the rule of law. There were Black neighborhoods and then White neighborhoods due to the apartheid regime.

After 1994, we started opening stores in previously disadvantaged areas, predominantly Black areas. We now have over 200 stores in that bracket with our Usave brand. Usave’s are limited range stores like you find in Europe. We try to keep not more than 800 lines in those stores; they are small. People there don’t have transport with their own cars. To get to a store is an expensive thing to do. We try to make stores more accessible.

Q: How widespread a problem is this phenomenon? What percentage of food gets sold through supermarkets?

A: In South Africa, if you talk fruit and vegetables, I would say a good 50 percent of fresh produce gets to the end consumer not through the chain store. What you typically find in South Africa are a growing number of fresh markets, now reaching 18 or so. The majority of chain stores don’t buy from fresh markets due to food safety issues, including traceability that does not exist. So they are not comfortable to buy from fresh produce markets. A group of buyers started to enter into the fresh market in the past 50 years. It’s informal. They don’t have a shop and are trading on the pavement. This is allowed in South Africa. Anyone can sit in front of a chain store and trade his product.

Q: What other options are available to poor South Africans in more remote areas?

A: It becomes a moral dilemma. The unemployment rate is 20 percent and these guys want to earn an honest living. Is it right to stop them, to take them out of an honest job instead of them becoming a gangster, robber or murderer? That’s the story behind it. These guys are in the previous disadvantaged areas.

Some of them are trading on the street corners or small store or straight from the truck. But it’s a huge, huge outlet and they can end up in opposition to you, with no overhead costs, electricity or proper food safety measures. The consumer doesn’t have the same food safety protections.

The lower you go with income groups, the less this is a deterring factor for them because they just want to eat, they’re hungry. They’ve heard of food hazards, but they don’t have the money to pay for that safety assurance.

Many a time a Spaza shop — an informal business — abuses the situation of disenfranchised people who have no where else to buy necessities. It could be a motor garage trading and making huge profits. Then things like food safety are really not maintained. We’ve made a difference to many poor people in these areas.

Q: What kinds of challenges do you face in distributing food to these areas?

A: We’re in 16 countries, and not just cities, but also in rural areas far away from city. Sometimes it is not profitable. There are bad roads and lack of infrastructure. We believe that if you want to build a brand, you have to be seen. As we go to these rural areas, people use our brand and they start to know ShopRite. Maybe their children will go to study in a bigger town and stay with the brand from a rural brand to a city brand. We are not just picking the profitable areas. But we still have to make a profit.

When you open stores in rural areas, you try to procure from that area; it might be 400 or 500 meters from a distribution center. You don’t have the density of population to justify a truck even once a week. We ask rural people and encourage them to plant. We want to empower them.

Q: Do you have labor issues? Are your stores unionized? What is the political climate on this front?

A: Unions are basically an issue. We have minimum wages and a lot of legislation — - what pay and housing should be, etc., not only on farms, but right through the labor sector. There are strong unions. It’s political, normally connected to the government as well. You have that relationship. What we have as the governing body here, the African National Congress, and some of the affiliates like COSATU, the strongest union, work together in elections.

Q: In the U.S., labor issues can be a challenge, retaining good employees after investing in training, etc.

A: Labor is difficult… your opposition can steal your labor, but it is not a problem to the extent we can’t do business. Employee retention is manageable, but it is a challenge. You need a whole package of remuneration and training and looking to the future.

Q: In addition to your procurement responsibilities, do you also do merchandising?

A: I’m not directly involved in merchandising/marketing. We have what we call fruit and vegetable retailers each responsible for 13 to 15 stores. They will go out and see if product is properly merchandised, how it’s signed, it’s on the shelf, on the order guide, arranged well, quality meeting standards, etc. They’re in an advisory capacity rather then to exercise control. They work for Freshmark. And some work for Shoprite. In house, they work for the fruit and vegetable departments.

Q: In the U.S., people are following trends, such as local versus organic, convenience items, marketing to children, etc. Are these types of issues relevant in South Africa?

A: One of the differences in South Africa is that we’re still dealing with an unsaturated market. There are still millions of people bettering their position financially, busy moving up. The portion that is rich is the minority by far. People are interested in good food and value for money, not so much about fruit for children in smaller sizes. That is something Woolworths is doing, catering for the more finicky market and specialty markets.

We say we’re feeding the nation.

Q: Do you do any importing?

A: In South Africa, we have a typical season. We do import a little, but it ends up being very expensive; volume is limited, not even one percent. It’s too costly. If we do import, it’s normally from Europe, Italy or Spain.

Most product comes from South Africa. On vegetables, we sell proficiently 12 months of the year. When it comes to fruit, we have times of the year with windows of opportunity, for your summer fruit varieties as well as citrus. Competition is from Europe. And then the volumes sold to consumers in South Africa decrease dramatically when talking to importers because of price and distance. It’s a different situation in the U.S., where you don’t have seasons at retail. It’s a privilege we don’t have in South Africa that U.S. consumers take for granted.

Q: Do you ever import any product from the U.S.?

A: You might be interested to know we import Washington apples a container at a time every two weeks, which gives a perspective. We buy the big size, and it’s a point of difference for us, selling for 50 cents each. We imported California grapes once or twice

Q: How do you view the U.S. produce industry?

A: I think many a time we look at the U.S. as leaders. We send our people there to learn.

Q: What is your vision five years from now? Where do you see the greatest growth opportunities?

A: We’d like to grow stronger in the bottom end of the market and the middle too. There is a lot of growth we can still achieve. There are so many countries we haven’t entered into yet. It is not so easy politically, and there are so many barriers.

Bad infrastructure is difficult to get through, and some areas coming out of war situations are very unstable. A country where we want to grow far bigger is Nigeria, and Ghana, and Angola is also full of potential. Africa is one big dream.

One of the most interesting jobs the Pundit has had was supplying American produce to Africa. Liberia used to use US dollars as its currency, and we shipped mixed loads via sea very frequently. We thought it kind of fun to trade with such a remote place and enjoyed when the Liberians came to New York and we had dinner together. Unfortunately trading with Africa also taught us about instability and, to this day, we are not sure what happened to the friends we knew there after the country collapsed.

South Africa is a case of African exceptionalism. In country after country, as colonialism collapsed, the white population fled or was driven out, and countless millions were plunged into dysfunction… or worse.

Not South Africa. Perhaps it was the visionary leadership of Nelson Mandela or perhaps it was the basic fact that a white population in South Africa, larger than the total population of New Zealand, really had nowhere to go. In places like Zimbabwe, the white population generally had British passports. In Angola or Mozambique, they went back to Portugal. Yet in South Africa, the Afrikaans, sometimes referred to as Africa’s white tribe, had been there so long and Dutch connections were so distant, that they just had nowhere to go.

So South Africa’s black population, which had observed the poverty and chaos that ensued when the white population fled the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, and South Africa’s white population, which was substantial and had no way of instantly disappearing, created a system of cooperation and co-existence.

The Pundit was honored to be invited down to South Africa to give the Keynote Address for the AllFresh Conference, the national produce conclave in South Africa. We also did a series of workshops for different organizations, including two for Freshmark/Shoprite/Checkers.

We found the country inspiring and, as it struggled toward Democracy, we felt that the struggle in South Africa to find a route to peace and prosperity in the midst of great diversity was very much a struggle in which America had a stake — that success in South Africa could show the world the strength of democratic governance. It seemed to us that American self-interest stood very much with seeing the South African enterprise succeed.

The announcement that Wal-Mart is poised to move into the region reminds us of a visit some years ago to the headquarters of Capespan in South Africa, where the CEO pointed to a large map. He predicted that foreign investment in South Africa would be strong. His logic? All over the world, CEOs had similar maps and on each there were flags or pins pointing out where the giant had operations.

And all these companies would have operations in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Oceania and their map would be covered in flags. Then all of Africa would be empty and this astute executive, who understood that economics and psychology share important elements, explained that these CEOs would be bothered by this gap in their maps and would want to invest in Africa, and if one is going to invest in Africa, South Africa was the place to start.

South Africa is diverse in a way no other country quite is. There are places and moments when you think you are in the most modern city in Europe; there are places one thinks one is in Tuscany… then one is riding an elephant or watching a leopard give birth or seeing a native tribe.

We can’t wait to hear what Dr. Johan Van Deventer has to tell us about retailing in Africa and his take on our retailing in the Northeast and,more broadly,in America.p>


We have to confess that we have a secret reason for enjoying the time we have spent with Dr. Van Deventer. Yes, he is knowledgeable and a gentleman, but wherever Johan is, the wine is always exceptional, because his wife, Gesie, who is joining him on his journey to America, is one of South Africa’s highly esteemed wine makers.

You can read some accolades her wines have won here. You can read the series we wrote on our trip to South Africa here and as we approach The New York Produce Show and Conference, keep in mind Gesie’s favorite motto, adapted from Zig Ziglar: “Life is like a ladder and no-one has ever climbed a ladder with his hands in his pockets.”

If you want to get your hands out of your pockets and come meet Johan and Gesie, register for The New York Produce Show and Conference right here.

Tour To New Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market Offers A Glimpse Into The Future Of Produce Wholesaling In America

Not long ago, the newly named Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market set out to unveil its new logo and announce its imminent move:

The Philadelphia Regional Produce Market (PRPM), a wholesale produce market providing quality, variety and service for over fifty years, introduces a new name and logo preceding the move from the market’s current location to a new, state of the art facility, now planned for January 2011.

Fortuitous timing meant that attendees at The New York Produce Show and Conference could have an opportunity to get a sneak preview of the revolutionary market design that could help maintain quality and meet food safety and food security standards, while operating in an energy-efficient and environmentally friendly way.

Before we head off to see the new market on a Bus Tour scheduled to depart the Hilton New York Hotel at 8 am on Thursday, November 11, 2010, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor, Mira Slott, to speak with man heading up the effort to promote the new market and see if we could gain some insight as to what we will see:

John Vena
John Vena, Inc.
Philadelphia, PA

Q: We’re looking forward to participating in the launch of the new Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market and learning more about its development and impact. First, could you tell us about your background and what inspired your dedicated involvement with the opening and the marketing effort?

A: I am a third-generation member of our firm, John Vena, Inc. The company was founded by my grandfather in 1919. I planned a career in broadcast advertising, marketing and sales, but a couple of years after college, my father convinced me to join him selling produce. Because of my background in marketing and advertising, I took an early interest in working with the other merchants in The Philadelphia Regional Produce Market to promote ourselves as a viable source for fresh produce in our region.

Q: In what ways?

A: From the late 1980’s through the 90’s, we ran a small year ‘round promotion campaign designed to position our Market and the merchants here as the best source for produce and for information about produce. At that time, most news about fresh produce came from the wire services and did not address the local scene at all. Of course, our Merchants were well positioned to talk about what was actually happening here in our area regarding product availability for products from all over the world.

Also, we were and still are a large supplier of local produce, but the story wasn’t being told properly and it took a very long time to convince the local media that we were a good source of information and product. However, after about 10 years, our Board decided to reallocate funds and the promotion campaign budget was eliminated.

Q: Did the Market continue to prosper?

A: In the late 1990’s many of our Merchants began to realize that our aging facility was hampering our ability to grow our businesses. We had already spent a lot of money to make physical improvements to the building, but it became apparent that what was needed was a whole new market facility.

We could see that no amount of remodeling or refurbishing would provide us with the kind of facility to meet the demands of the very near future. In 2000, we embarked on the very long and difficult process that will very soon see our Merchants operating from the most advanced facility in our industry.

Q: Did you confront any major obstacles along the way?

A: Some of the biggest challenges we faced with this project were directly related to the nature of the timeline of development. As I said we have been working on this for 10 years. There were several sites under consideration throughout the early years. The budget was set early in the project. Since those days, there was a spike in the cost of concrete and steel, and natural inflation. Each site cost money to evaluate, much of which was paid out of our own operating funds. Rising costs and inflation created a need to “value-engineer” the project, which is a nice way to say that we had to decide how to do with less features and a smaller building and still remain true to the mission and personality of our Market.

Q: That must have involved some resourceful strategizing…

A: The burden of managing all these issues fell squarely on the shoulders of our Market Manager, Sonny DiCrecchio. Well before ground was ever broken for this project, he recognized the need to take the responsibility of working with the project developer and the construction and engineering companies to deliver this project on time, within budget and in line with the expectations of our Merchants. I know that there were many times that the only thing that kept this project on track was his determination. Our new market wouldn’t be ready to receive visitors on November 11, 2010, if not for Sonny.

Q: Have you jumpstarted a new marketing campaign to promote the transformation?

A: Our current effort to market the new facility actually began almost two years ago, not long after the official groundbreaking ceremony. Our Board mandated the formation of a marketing committee and I volunteered to lead that group. Since its formation, our committee has commissioned marketing research, and with the help of carefully selected professionals, renamed our new facility — the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market — created a new fresh logo, a Brand Guide, a Messaging Guide, a promotional calendar of events, promotional tools for our Merchants, and designed and launched a totally new website: www.pwpm.net.

Our marketing committee will be on hand at the inaugural New York Produce Show and Conference to introduce our brand new facility to the trade for the first time.

Q: Could you provide our readers with a sneak preview to excite them about the tour? Do you have any fun vignettes or memorable moments that you could share?

A: The main concourse in our new building is one-quarter mile long. We had hoped to allow the people on the tour to race the length of the market for prizes, but due to the fact that it is an active construction site, we had to cancel that plan.

Q: For perspective, we’d like to learn the meaning and significance of this new market for the merchants, for the farmers that market through it, and for the buyers who buy there. What are the most important changes and impacts?

A: Many independent wholesalers scattered around the area have been upgrading their own facilities and systems in order to be able to compete in the future. A terminal market like ours offers much more than any individual business. We believe that our facility will deliver an opportunity for growers, shippers and customers to come together in a very competitively energized environment. All the best attributes of a ‘market’ will be retained in our new facility.

Q: Could you highlight the key advantages?

A: We are 26 different companies, each one with a different taste in suppliers and in the products and services offered. Operating inside a common facility makes it easy for customers to shop for whatever level of variety or quality they want. But from our new home on Essington Avenue, we will be able to offer all the basics of what we do inside a modern facility unlike any other.

For the merchants, we expect to develop an even greater synergy among ourselves as a result of the shared systems for power, refrigeration and communications. For anyone bringing in or picking up product, the effect of weather and breaks in the cold chain are eliminated. The simple fact that this is a totally enclosed facility will eliminate many problems associated with food safety and make the place easier to keep clean.

For customers arriving to buy and load, we expect a huge jump in satisfaction levels due to a large increase in available truck parking and product staging areas.

Q: In addition, what are the broader public policy implications for local food systems and for a vibrant entrepreneurial and independent sector?

A: For the last 10 years, our merchants have been working on turning our dream of a new, vibrant facility into reality. In fact, our segment of the industry has been an important link in the fresh food supply chain in the region since the City of Philadelphia was first laid out by William Penn.

Q: So the market has a long history…

A: The roots of our market reach back hundreds of years to the Philadelphia riverfront, and the arrival of fresh produce by boat from farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. Wholesale dealers set up on the “docks” to service all customers. The area, called Dock Creek, later became Dock Street and was totally dedicated to produce wholesalers. Most of the merchants in our Market can trace their own business roots directly back to that neighborhood and those days.

Moving from the Dock Street area to a new facility within the Food Distribution Center south of the City was accomplished through a public/private “partnership” forged between our Association and the City of Philadelphia. The result of that partnership is the facility that we have occupied successfully since 1959. However, our particular role in the local and regional food system has grown as a result of our survival.

Q: How?

A: Other channels of distribution in our region, particularly the old Railroad Vegetable Depot and the Fruit Auction, no longer exist and our merchants have had to handle an increase in fresh produce from around the country. We have had to provide a service to the region that required more than our space in the Philadelphia Food Distribution Center was able to handle.

Recognizing that, former State Senator Vincent Fumo and Governor Edward Rendell took the necessary steps to preserve our ability to continue to serve the State of Pennsylvania and the region, by again aligning public resources with our own small business resources to create a new standard for the fresh produce business and to underscore the importance of food-safe technology in a local free-market setting.

Q: How important is the market to the areas it serves? What is the competitive environment and is that changing?

A: The Market has served as a distribution hub for produce from local, national and international growers throughout the region. We have served retailers and foodservice companies of all sizes, along with the local market.This particular dynamic creates value for our suppliers and our customers, because, as a group, we are well positioned to supply a wide range of products and a wide range of price points.

By working along the entire spectrum of customer demand, we are particularly well suited to match a customer to every lot offered for sale. Also, because we are a living, breathing “marketplace”, we are economically very efficient.

As much as we value the quality of our products and service to our customers, basic economics — supply and demand — really drive us every day. This simple model is at the heart of what we do and will continue to drive the business in our new facility. We know that in order to maximize the impact of the cutting-edge technology of our new market on the customers and the consumers in this region, we must be competitive within the food system, within the supply chain. There isn’t any way to escape that. The technology and the facility are just tools, and we realize that our own experience and attention to the economic basics will be the keys to success.

Building new wholesale markets is not an easy thing to make happen. All the political and economic stars need to be brought into alignment, and so the achievement in getting this market built should not be underestimated.

Modern markets are different, not in degree but in kind, from the existing facilities because they eliminate the exposure to the outdoors. That break in the cold chain and exposure to the elements risks quality issues and food-security issues.

So the chance to visit Philadelphia’s new market is an opportunity to glimpse the future of wholesaling.

And wholesaling may well be in for a revival. Local and sustainability both draw on an ethos that celebrates the small-scale, the independent and the community-based. If one believes in those values, then one will ultimately be drawn to wholesaling and terminal markets.The alternatives are either limited — such as direct sales by farmers to consumers — or large scale — such as big supermarket chains buying directly. It is only the wholesale sector that will intermediate between the midsize family farm and the midsize ethnic entrepreneurs redefining urban retailing.

Any time you have an opportunity to see where the future is going, you are wise to grasp it.

We’ve also added sugar and spice to this tour.

Wegmans is the supermarket foreign retailers most ask to see when we are arranging tours. And so when the opportunity arose to make a stop at Wegmans in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, we jumped on it.

Of course, smart produce people don’t only want to learn about produce — they want to know more about everything. So to entertain and inform us on the ride to Philadelphia, we have persuaded none other than Ben Franklin to hop aboard the bus and regale us with entertaining tales of this most historic region.

So from the colonial past to the future of produce wholesaling, this tour is a very special opportunity.

You can learn more about The New York Produce Show and Conference here.

You can register for the show and a tour here.

Or you can just sign up for a tour alone, right here.

New York Produce Show And Conference Ramps Up Effort To Reach Consumer Influencers Lewis & Neale Provides Added Firepower With A NY Presence

Our piece, New York Produce Show And Conference Retains DMA Solutions For Consumer-Influencer Outreach, spoke to our decision to use the first iteration of The New York Produce Show and Conference as an opportunity to go beyond the traditional “Press Room” into a pro-active approach of finding those in a position to influence consumers and bring them into closer communion with the world of “Fresh.”

The effort was inspired by a blog post Dan’l Mackey Almy of DMA Solutions wrote, suggesting a productive use for slow “third days” at some of the big conventions.

Well, The New York Produce Show and Conference only has a one-day trade show, but we see this type of outreach as crucial, as integral to what both the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS were trying to accomplish when we launched the event.

Dan’l and her team have simply been dynamos, and it became obvious that the potential for this outreach, not only to traditional media but also to influential bloggers, chefs and their organizations, health-care and health promotion groups and others in a position to influence consumers — had barely been approached.

Dan’l has relationships across the country, and the Pundit has some friends as well and, when the need for a New York-based team became obvious, there was only one choice — the doyen of food and beverage communications, Anita Fial of Lewis & Neal, a division of CRT/tanaka.

Over the years, Lewis & Neal has worked with many of the key players in the fresh produce and the broader food space, including:

American Mushroom Institute
American Spice Trade Association
Avocados from Mexico (APEAM)
Chilean Fresh Fruit Association
DOLE Mushrooms
Duda Farm Fresh Foods
European Union Product

Florida Tomato Committee
Foods From Spain
Fresh SuperSweet Corn Council
Hain Natural Food
Hansel ‘n Gretel
Hollywood Safflower Oil
Italian Trade Commission
KA-ME Authentic Specialty
Asian Foods
Kraft Foods
Lea & Perrins Inc.
Mangos from Mexico (EMEX)
Mauna Loa Nut Corp.

Mexican Hass Avocado Importers
Association (MHAIA)

Mrs. T’s Pierogies
National Dairy Board
Naya Water
North Carolina SweetPotato

PANOS brands
Pepperidge Farm
Progresso Foods
Sesmark Crackers
Prosciutto di Parma
TexasSweet Citrus Marketing
The Birkett Mills (Wolff’s Kasha)
The Catfish Institute
U. S. Apple Association
U. S. Highbush Blueberry Council
Vanilla Information Bureau
Vitelli Foods
Vidalia Onion Committee

Now Anita, Jason Stemm and all her team at Lewis & Neale are working side by side with Dan’l and her team and all of us at The New York Produce Show and Conference to make this event a moment when we start to break through.

This is of no small significance. Every time there has been a food safety crisis, the Pundit has found himself speaking with loads of reporters that just aren’t knowledgeable about the subject they are assigned to cover in a crisis.

If we can build relationships, impart knowledge and help these influencers to better understand the business of fresh, next time there is a crisis or someone issues a report, these important influencers will react from a base of enhanced knowledge. That is an enormous win for the industry.

Here is the invitation we are using to invite the influencers to “Connect with Fresh”:

Click image to see a larger version

We are gearing for a great event and one that will serve a greater purpose for the greater good of the industry… and the population at large.

For Dan’l and her team at DMA Solutions, Anita Fial and her team at Lewis & Neale, for all of us at the Eastern Produce Council and PRODUCE BUSINESS… and indeed for every exhibitor, sponsor and attendee at The New York Produce Show and Conference, this makes the unveiling of this event just that much more significant…and that much more meaningful. Many thanks to Dan’l and Anita and a heartfelt welcome aboard.

New York Produce Show And Conference Roundup Of Articles

With The New York Produce Show and Conference right around the corner, we thought it might be helpful to maintain a roundup of some of the pieces we’ve written about the upcoming event.

We’ll keep this up through our post-event coverage.

Remember, you can learn more about the event here.

And you can register right here.

Roundup of articles:

  1. New Event Planned For 2010: Eastern Produce Council And PRODUCE BUSINESS Announce The New York Produce Show And Conference
  2. New York Metro’s Economy Is 12th Largest In The World
  3. Retail “Thought Leaders” Panel Announced For The New York Produce Show And Conference
  4. Famed Food Writer Joan Nathan To Speak At New York Produce Show And Conference
  5. 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
  6. 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
  7. Research To Be Unveiled At The New York Produce Show And Conference Shows ‘Local’ Preference Versus Organic
  8. Rooftop Farm Just Part Of The New York Experience
  9. Exciting Spouse/Companion Program Highlighted At The New York Produce Show And Conference
  10. Professors From Cornell And Arizona State Universities To Unveil Generic Produce Promotion Research Results At New York Produce Show And Conference
  11. PTI Voice Pick Code Solution May Propel Progress, While Presentation By Gary Fleming At New York Produce Show And Conference Offers Path For Fragmented New York Region Closer To Compliance
  12. New York Produce Show And Conference Retains DMA Solutions For Consumer-Influencer Outreach
  13. Pundit Mailbag — Professor John Stanton’s Presentation At New York Produce Show And Conference ‘Worth The Registration Fee Alone’
  14. When In New York… Meet The Vegetable Butcher At Mario Batali’s Eataly
  15. Tour To New Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market Offers A Glimpse Into The Future Of Produce Wholesaling In America
  16. New York Produce Show And Conference Enlists Services Of Lewis & Neal To Educate Influential Bloggers And Media About The Industry

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

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
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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