Our piece, Grape Shatter Issue Hits Wholesalers Hardest, dealt with a grape industry initiative to change USDA grade and “good delivery” standards for grapes shipped in bags and clamshells. The grape growers hope to increase the allowance for shatter. The debate centers around four issues:
- To what extent is shatter a normal occurrence with healthy grapes and to what extent does it represent an inherent vice in the product? Consumer research done by the California Table Grape Commission seems to indicate that consumers are tolerant of shatter but the shatter used in the study constituted healthy grapes attached to the stem, which were manually plucked off to get consumer reactions
If natural shatter is caused by a weakness in the fruit, then the shatter grapes may be of lower quality and might cause a different consumer reaction.
- Will California’s grape growers be able to enforce these standards against major retailers — or will only the wholesalers with less market power be forced to adhere to these standards?
- The specific proposal being advanced has the effect, perhaps inadvertently, of increasing the allowance for other defects such as discoloration and scarring when there is no shatter at all. Since these defects have nothing to do with bags or clamshells, it seems an unintended consequence of the way the initiative was drafted.
- The proposal calls for not scoring shatter up to 5%. Since good delivery standards allow for defects of up to 15%, grapes with no other defects could have 20% shatter and make good delivery. By the time a wholesaler sells the grapes to a retailer, the grapes get put on the retail shelf and purchased by a consumer and taken home, it is likely that shatter would be much higher. Even advocates for changing the shatter rule didn’t actually intend to allow consumers to buy grapes with one of every four grapes on the bottom of the bag.
We included many interviews in our piece and, of those interviews, those representing wholesalers were opposed to the new standard while those representing grape growers were backing the proposal for a new standard. Yet we have now received a letter indicating that not all producers endorse the proposed standard:
We are the only shipper on record opposing a relaxation in the shatter allowance. Attached is our letter, which is also posted at USDA’s website here: http://www.ams.usda.gov/fv/fpbdockets/grapes2.htm
Denver included a copy of the letter submitted to the USDA, which reads as follows:
Gerawan Farming is a grower and shipper of table grapes. We oppose the proposed allowance for shatter in existing U.S. grades. As an alternative, if such an allowance is deemed appropriate, it should be as a new grade. For example, instead of “U.S. No. 1,” it would be “U.S. No.1 High Shatter.”
However, even without any changes to the grades, sellers are not currently prohibited from selling grapes with high shatter. That is, the grades are not keeping product off the market. Sellers are free to represent their grapes as “high shatter” and buyers are free to buy them. So, we do not feel it is appropriate to change the current grade standards and thereby downgrade the industry’s and consumers’ perception of table grapes in general.
In addition, more shatter can increase moisture in a pack and thus increase disease pressure and start the decay process quicker. So it’s not as though a high-shatter pack is otherwise equivalent to a regular-shatter pack just because all the fruit will move from the store’s shelves.
Dan is an independent thinker and that has led him to lock horns with the various industry institutions in the grape and tree fruit industry. The same independent mode of thought led him to support the very first issue of Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS in 1985, back when many were taking a “wait and see” attitude.
Dan’s arguments are important. He makes basically three points:
- There is no law prohibiting the sale of high shatter grapes. You just can’t market them as US #1. If grape growers, right now, want to offer buyers grapes with high shatter or demand that buyers accept high shatter, they are free to do so.
The growers don’t do so because no wholesaler would buy the grapes without a substantial price concession if a grower said he wants to sell these grapes on the basis that 20% shatter delivered is OK.
- Since the grapes are fully saleable right now, it is hard to see why the USDA needs to weaken current grade standards.
- Dan rejects the argument that shatter doesn’t matter: “…more shatter can increase moisture in a pack and thus increase disease pressure and start the decay process quicker…”
The USDA will surely pay close regard to a grower/shipper acknowledging that shatter is not simply something of no concern. USDA is not only going to be concerned about the date of the inspection but how consumers are likely to experience these grapes. Dan’s cautions about moisture and decay will probably carry real weight.
We indicated some sympathy with the concept that the market had changed and that with retailers selling clamshells and bags, they were selling shatter and so it is only right that industry customs change to accommodate that fact. We remain sympathetic to the concept.
However, if we are going to be revamping standards to bring them into the modern world, we also have to look at the intense competition for consumer dollars. This means that the revamp should result in higher quality grapes reaching consumers — not lower.
There is a separate 1% allowance for decay. Perhaps we could get a consensus around 5% shatter as a separate allowance. Then allow 5% for discoloration, scarring and other defects. This would probably be, overall, a tougher standard than what exists today.
And that is what the grape growers should really want: Grapes that consumers encounter to be better grapes, because that will lead to better consumer acceptance, higher repeat purchases and a more prosperous grape industry.
Many thanks to Denver for sending Dan’s letter along.