Good Fruit Grower

January 15

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Postharvest PHOTO BY GERALDINE WARNER Pear slicing is not perfected yet Crunch Pak, the country's largest fresh apple slicer, is still figuring out how best to slice pears. by Geraldine Warner resh sliced apples have been a boon for Washington producers, providing them with an important market for small fruit. But, so far, pear growers can only look on enviously. Fresh sliced apples is a $475-million industry nationally, and Crunch Pak, based in Cashmere, Washington, is the largest producer. Tony Freytag, senior vice president of sales and marketing, said pears were the first item the company tried slicing when it was founded 12 years ago, but has never been able to make it work well enough. At least, not yet. Today, Crunch Pak produces about two million apple slices daily, with sales volume increasing by more than 20 percent annually for the last four years. About 8 percent of the U.S. Gala, Pink Lady, and Granny Smith apple crops are sliced. Crunch Pak is adding grapes and carrots to its line of health snacks, and has not given up on the idea of slicing pears, though it is fraught with challenges. "It's been a quest so far unattainable," he told growers at the Washington State Horticultural Association's annual meeting in December. "But we will keep trying to perfect it. We believe it's what the consumer wants and will eat. It's not something we've pushed to the back burner and said, 'We'll never do it.'" Freytag sees it as a way to sell more pears, particularly to young people who value convenience, but the challenge is to find a way to slice a pear so the slices will be sweet and juicy, won't turn brown, won't curl around the edges, can be shipped across the country, and will have a reasonable shelf life once they arrive. And do that consistently. F Soft, not crisp One of the difficulties is that a good-eating pear is soft, not crisp, like an apple. A pear with 6 to 8 pounds pressure has very good flavor but turns to mush when sliced. An 8- to 10-pound pear has good flavor but will bruise heavily when sliced. A 12- to 14-pound pear is great for slicing but has no flavor and dries out quickly. What seems to work best is a pear in the 10- to 12-pound range, which has good flavor, is sliceable, and will continue to mature and become slightly sweeter in the package. It would need a sugar level of at least 10° Brix. Tony Freytag believes consumers would eat more pears if they were sliced. It will take a close alliance with pear growers and packers who are willing to experiment with long-term storage and ripening and find out how long the raw pears need to be ripened to reach the desired softness for slicing. A Bosc pear will not work for slicing because of its shape and narrow neck. Removing the seed cavity will probably break the neck off, reducing the percentage of edible pear, Freytag explained. Comice pears would be too soft. Freytag thinks that green Bartlett and d'Anjou pears will work best. As with apples, the ideal size will be 110 or smaller. It won't be an outlet for culls, Freytag emphasized. The fruit has to be good quality. The sliced apple business has created a slicer grade for apples that didn't exist ten years ago, he pointed out. Marketers are able to sell the larger, better grade apples to retailers, and Crunch Pak takes the smaller sizes that are a little harder to sell on the fresh market. "We're hoping someday there'll be a slicer grade for pears," he said. Special slicing equipment will be needed, as cannery machinery is not suitable. Crunch Pak has been testing various types of equipment in an attempt to limit scuffing, bruising, and breakage. Preventing oxidization after the pears are sliced is doable using calcium sorbate (calcium and vitamin C), the same treatment as used on apples. However, achieving a 21-day shelf life like apples would be difficult, Freytag said. The product might be limited to a regional market. He expects that pears will be packed with rigid trays that will protect them better than bags. Consumer demand must be built up quickly enough that there's not an unacceptable amount of unsold product that has to be thrown away, he said. "The key is to get turnover fast enough and finding retailers that will partner with you." Another challenge is that a sliced pear—even at the right maturity—might not look very appealing. Consumers will need to learn that it tastes good nonetheless. Freytag said the company will continue to try to perfect the slicing process for pears and do test shipments, but it won't be solved tomorrow, and likely not in 2014, he said. "It's not something we're going to give up on. We've seen what it's done for the apple industry in terms of putting a floor under the business. I just can't give you a deliverable today." • RETAIL SALES OF SLICED APPLES continue to soar t first glance, apples, like eggs, seem endowed by nature with perfect packaging, but the market for fresh apple slices continues to grow. "People thought we were crazy—people still think it's crazy that people buy an apple that's already sliced," admits Tony Freytag, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Crunch Pak. And those people include the general manager of a major retail store who buys $10 million in sliced apples each year and still doesn't understand why people buy them. Crunch Pak sells 2 million apple slices a day in 14-ounce family packs, in trays, in clamshells, in single-serving plastic bags, and in larger value packs. When home use, institutional use, and fast-food restaurant use are all combined, apple slicing is a $475-million business nationally. "Crunch Pak was founded by apple growers who believed that people would eat more apples if they were easier to eat," Freytag said. "Kids with small mouths, missing teeth, or with braces can eat slices when they can't bite a whole apple." In a school lunch study, fruit sales increased 61 percent when the fruit was sliced. A A partnership with Disney resulted in 18 percent of Crunch Pak's business being in Disney-labeled products. 16 JANUARY 15, 2014 GOOD FRUIT GROWER Young adults prefer prepared foods for snacks. And they're looking for healthy snacks. When buying sliced apples, they look for freshness, nutrition, healthfulness, and convenience, in that order, and pricing at $1.99 or less, Freytag said. Fast-food restaurants, striving to improve their image and meet Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are offering sliced fruit. One child in three is obese. Eighty-eight percent don't eat three or more servings of fruit or vegetables a day. Freytag said that 69 percent of women aged 18 to 60 don't buy sliced apples, so there's room for growth. Technically, sliced apples can't be labeled "fresh" since they are bathed in calcium sorbate, a preservative they keeps them from decaying, discoloring, or losing crispness, Freytag said. Packaged, sliced, bagged apples, properly refrigerated, have a 21-day shelf life, he added. Freytag spoke to apple growers and marketers during the U.S. Apple Association's Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference in Chicago in August last year. —R. Lehnert and G. Warner

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