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Withdrawal of grape shatter proposal perplexes growers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service recently withdrew a proposal to revise the table grape shatter standard at destination, a move that greatly perplexed and disappointed California growers who had petitioned for the change.

"I'm very disappointed," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, based in Fresno.

The league, in conjunction with Western Growers Association, had petitioned for the change in late 2005. The growers asked AMS to change the grape standard to reflect changes in the industry with regard to packaging, according to Mr. Bedwell.

Tom Oliveri of WGA explained that the new standard was limited to grapes at destination packed in consumer packs, such as clamshells or poly bags. Under the current standard for table grapes, there is a 12 percent tolerance for defects, with grape shatter (defined as grapes no longer being attached to the stem) considered a defect.

The league and WGA argued in their petition that grapes are most often shipped in consumer packs, so shatter does not represent lost sales as it once did when the vast majority of table grapes were shipped bulk in a lug. The two grower associations petitioned for a 10 percent shatter allowance in addition to the 12 percent defect standard.

Mr. Bedwell said that consumer research contracted by his group showed that the vast majority of consumers do not consider shatter a quality defect. He told The Produce News July 10 that grapes in a clamshell or poly bag with shatter are routinely sold to consumers with no negative impact. Hence, growers believe an amendment to the standard is supported by the realities of the marketplace.

AMS originally solicited comments on the concept on Jan. 24, 2006. Those comments resulted in a rule-making procedure with the AMS proposing the change in the Federal Register and asking for comments on the new amendment in September 2006.

Just two weeks ago, in early July, AMS withdrew the proposal, stating in the Federal Register, "After reviewing and considering the comments received, the agency has decided not to proceed with this action."

AMS spokesman Billy Cox indicated to The Produce News in an e-mail that the petition was withdrawn because there was not unanimous support for it. AMS received 15 comments, with 13 in favor and two opposed. Mr. Cox wrote, "When we received objections from a table grape shipper as well as an organization representing a number of terminal market receivers, we had to take those views into account. As the proposed rule included no alternative allowances that we might substitute and we had no factual basis to discount the objections, the agency had no alternative to withdrawing the proposal."

Mr. Bedwell said that besides being disappointed with the decision, he is also very upset with the process. He said that he has been in constant contact with AMS for the past 18 months that it has been working on this proposal, and not until it withdrew the petition did it indicate that it had to have unanimous support. He believes that is an impossible standard to reach.

While one California table grape shipper did oppose the amendment, Mr. Bedwell characterized it as a technical objection and not an objection to the concept itself. The only objection to the proposal itself, according to Mr. Bedwell, was filed by the North American Perishable Agricultural Receivers after polling its membership, comprised largely of East Coast wholesale market operators.

Pat Davis of NAPAR argued that if the amendment was adopted, shatter in any given consumer pack could be as high as 25 percent, taking into account the current 12 percent defect allowance along with the additional 10 percent shatter allowance and the 3 percent margin of error allowed during inspections. He said that the CG&TFL consumer research did not test reactions to shatter that neared the 25 percent level.

Mr. Davis opined in his comments: "We continue to see no reason to provide a special allowance for shattered berries in consumer containers for en route or at destination. The proposed allowance will enable more lower-quality product to qualify for the U.S. No. 1 grade."

Mr. Bedwell told The Produce News that some receivers sell grapes with excessive shatter with no problems or discount to retailers and consumers, but they use the current standard to exact a discount from their shippers. This, he said, is unfair and the amendment was designed to create an equitable situation.

Mr. Bedwell believes that it will be virtually impossible to get all receivers to agree to any new standard because some use the current standard to their financial advantage.

Mr. Cox said that the petitioners can "appeal this decision" in federal district court and "ask for an order directing the department to proceed with the rulemaking."

He also said that the department plans to work "with all interested parties to identify areas of consensus to ensure that the table grape standards meaningfully reflect contemporary marketing practices."

Mr. Bedwell said that he and WGA Executive Vice President Matthew McInerney have a meeting slated July 18 with AMS in Washington, DC, to discuss the issue, the decision-making process and their options moving forward.