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Pundit’s Mailbag — Retail Specifications Needed For Sweet Onions

Our piece, Sweet Onion Fraud, pointed out that because there is no definition of a “sweet onion,” supermarkets across the country are selling sub-par products and this, inevitably, leads to lower consumption. Here is some of the feedback:

I applaud you for the concise sweet onion article in today’s e-mail. I am a big supporter for establishing standards in the sweet onion category.

Keep up the insightful information.

— Ralph J. Schwartz
Director of Category Management
Director of Value Added Marketing
Potandon Produce LLC
Idaho Falls, Idaho

Well, let it never be said we didn’t get praise here at the Pundit for being concise!

A different correspondent saw the issue in the context of his experience with tree fruit:

Although I have spent most of my career dealing in fruit, I was involved in trying to develop a sweet onion program originally in Chile. “Sweet”, as you mention, is a relative term, and ‘hotness’ is really the issue.

I am sure there are eminently qualified onion folks who will tell you the 3 primary factors are; variety, planting date plus global latitude, and fertilized soil conditions — all playing a role. The goal is to reduce the amount, or the ‘effect’ of sulphenic acids.

The sweet onion dilemma is very similar to trying to define what constitutes a ‘tree ripe’ peach (again, a complex variable formula of variety, cultural practices, harvest pressure-Brix, and the ripening temperature sequence).

Unfortunately, the relative difference in perceived ‘value’ of hot vs. sweet is an inducement for commercial producers to cheat and mislabel especially in a “hot” market (sorry bad pun).

In California peaches, a number of retailers have independently set their own standards for minimal fruit pressure and Brix levels, and they buy (and reject) accordingly, even though there are no official standards for what constitutes a ‘good tasting ‘ peach.

Eventually, more retailers are going to do their own research and adopt individual standards of what constitutes a ‘sweet onion’. Major commercial grower-packer-shipper-importers need to be sure they are ‘involved’ in the process and agree, perhaps at least to a de facto minimum (or, perhaps maximum in onions) standard that covers most commercial offerings. However, as with wine, the factor of “terroir” will be hard to regulate.

— Richard A. Eastes
Rixx Intl. Marketing Co.Inc.
Visalia, CA

Doubtless there are difficult cases, and the desire for sweet onions year-round in large quantity will probably lead to onions that are less sweet at some times of the year than at others.

However, just because there are hard cases doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything about the easy ones. One way retailers can deal with this is by selecting top-quality vendors. This constrains the supply chain and might result in paying a little more, but at least the retailers — and the consumers — get what they pay for.

Another option, as Rick points out, is to develop retail specifications. Then, at least everyone is on an even playing field… although our understanding is that in Australia, they set up a sort of “certified field” system defining sweet not with regard to the outcome but to the way it was grown.

We also suspect USDA will have some interest here. How can the USDA stay relevant if grades are not adjusted over time to address the needs of the industry?

In the short term, though, this is a retail issue and what has to happen is every VP needs to send his onion buyer the piece we ran and let the buyer know that he doesn’t want the cheapest onion with a “sweet” sticker; he wants the best value sweet onion he can get.

This will do more to increase consumer satisfaction and thus consumption than any marketing campaign.

Many thanks to Ralph J. Schwartz at Potandon Produce LLC and to Richard A. Eastes at Rixx International Marketing for weighing in on this important issue.

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