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Is a national sweet onion certification standard possible?

by Lora Abcarian | June 13, 2011

As the sweet onion category continues to grow and mature, industry discussion has inevitably turned toward the question of whether a national sweet onion certification standard is necessary.

The discussion was sparked by Sweet Onion Trading Co. in Melbourne, FL, with its June 6 announcement of a company-wide 2011 Global Certification Initiative.

“Sweet onions should be free from pungent, bitter, metallic or other ‘off’ flavors which interfere with the experience of mild, sweet flavors,” President Barry Rogers said in a statement. He told The Produce News that National Onions Labs, located in Collins, GA, began testing all the company’s sweet onion varieties this past May.

Although the initiative is company oriented at this time, it is a challenge to other producers to create a national certification standard.

David Burrell, president of National Onion Labs, said that the sweet onion category currently accounts for 30 percent of all onion sales, translating to retail sales of approximately $425 million.

“Sweet onions are one of the few items in produce sold for flavor,” he said, adding that onion flavor is determined by variety, farming and management practices, and location. National Onion Labs measures heat, strong flavors, aftertaste and sugars as they are actually tasted.

“Only by sampling at the field level can these factors be analyzed properly,” he added.

Keystone Fruit Marketing, headquartered in Greencastle, PA, was originally a Vidalia grower.

“Keystone was the first company to be able to provide a year-round supply of sweet onions [back in the 1990s],” President Kurt Schweitzer told The Produce News June 10. In addition to Vidalias, Keystone produces and markets Walla Walla Sweet Onions and Mayan Sweets from Peru and Mexico.

“Testing has evolved well past pungency,” said Mr. Schweitzer. NOL has certified Keystone’s sweet onions since the 1990s. “We believe in NOL,” he added. “NOL has showed us how to grow a consistently sweet onion.”

Mr. Schweitzer went on to say that the cost of testing is minimal, giving Keystone an edge in growing and delivering the sweetest product to the marketplace.

Mr. Schweitzer supports the work of Sweet Onion Trading to establish a national certification standard.

“In general, it’s a good thing for the industry,” he said. “But we are at the starting gate.”

In addition to the signature Vidalia onion, Bland Farms LLC, located in Glennville, GA, grows and markets Texas Sweets and Empire Sweets, and imports sweet onions from Peru and Mexico.

Richard Pazderski, director of sales and marketing for Bland Farms, said that the company conducts both in-house and third-party pungency testing.

While pyruvic acid is the most common indicator, Mr. Pazderski said that pyruvic acid “does not tell the full story. I think that any number of factors can affect sweetness, regardless of the variety or type, and that grower-shippers should continuously monitor the consistency of their products both pre- and post-harvest.”

As for a national standard, Mr. Pazderski said, “Currently, there is little agreement on what a ‘standard’ would look like regarding testing procedures, who would perform them and what the limits would be. Ideal technology has not be developed as of yet, either.”

The national certification standard issue is complex for John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce in Reidsville, GA.

“If growers are willing to abide by the rules and regulations set forth and accept the results as final, and if retailers are willing to change their supplier partners overnight based solely on the certification process results, then an industry standard could possibly work,” he told The Produce News June 9.

Mr. Shuman said that testing procedures destroy the product being evaluated.

“So the onions that make retail have not been tested,” he stated. “This is the basis behind the whole issue. It’s about percentages and trends at farm level to improve our cultivation practices and should not be about marketing a guarantee to the consumer.”

Because such a small portion of the overall crop is tested, Mr. Shuman added, “I do not believe this is enough to establish a certified sweet guarantee to the consumer.”

A distribution channel would need to be created for substandard product, according to Mr. Shuman. “Also, a national standard will most certainly reduce the quantity of sweet onions available to the market,” he said. “So everyone can expect sweet onion prices to skyrocket for several years to come after a national standard has been set.”

Matt Curry, president of Curry & Co. in Brooksville, OR, markets Vidalia, Walla Walla Sweet Onions, Hermiston Sweets, Hermiston Sweet Reds, Texas Sweets, and imported product from Peru and Chile.

Despite the myriad variables involved in testing, Mr. Curry said, “I believe the industry is slowly moving to testing with a national industry standard. I also believe this debate will continue to go on over the years, and perhaps there’s a more complete solution available. We need to deliver on our promise of sweetness to the retailer and consumer.”

According to Mr. Curry, lack of certification has not hurt the category. “Unfortunately, we have had people play games and knowingly market non-sweet onions as sweet onions in order to get the higher pricing sweet onions demand,” he said.

Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, OR, moves Spanish Sweets from the Idaho-Eastern Oregon onion-producing region. Spanish Sweets are long-day storage onions and have a higher pungency level than the short-day non-storage varieties in the sweet onion category.

Mr. Riley said that the creation of a national certification standard may not solve the problem. But he said that seed breeders in the region are testing long-day storage varieties that may meet pungency standards for sweet onions.