(Aug. 6) LAKE ALFRED, Fla. — Fresh-cut citrus may be on grocery store shelves despite a recent well-publicized setback.

Citrus processors are investigating new technology manufactured by ABL Costruzioni Meccaniche, Modena, Italy, that offers solutions to problems that past machinery was unable to solve.

ABL’s OP30 system peels citrus and cuts the product into a variety of sizes. Unlike other technology that was experimented with recently, the Italian machinery does not use enzyme treatment to soften the skin of the fruit and features an electronic peeling head that adjusts to the variety of fruit being processed.

The OP30, which was introduced in the U.S.at the International Fresh-cut Produce Association show in April 2003, is designed for use with oranges, grapefruit, kiwifruit and mangoes.

It takes up a small amount of space, peels 30 fruits per minute and has a capacity of 1,200 to 1,300 pounds per hour, according to ABL. The OP30 measures 8 feet long, 6 feet wide and 7 feet, 6 inches in height.

The system was on display recently at the Florida Department of Citrus/University of Florida Experiment Station, Lake Alfred, and was greeted with a warm reception from industry officials.

FRESH-CUT VALIDITY

“It’s a valuable piece of equipment and can supply the niche market for citrus and other markets,” said Mike Harrell, president of Florida Citrus Producers, St. Petersburg, “It’s something fairly large companies with a national presence could buy, and it will give validity to fresh-cut products as well as citrus in general.”

Among the heavy hitters interested in the technology is Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc., Coral Gables, which recently terminated a deal using machinery purchased by the Florida Department of Citrus.

“We’ve looked at (the OP30), and it does appear to be something worth considering,” said John Loughridge, vice president of marketing for Del Monte. “It’s got some applications.”

Floyd Henson, senior automation specialist for the department of citrus, said the equipment received high marks from everyone who saw it in operation.

“For a lot of companies, it’s not a question of whether they will buy it but when, because they already have the market,” Henson said.

The estimated cost of $150,000 is offset by savings in manpower hours, said Luca Ascari of ABL.

Ascari said the OP30 is a proven product in Spain, France and Italy, where it performs the work of 10 to 12 people.

“The payback of the machine is very quick, even in Europe, where the market is not the same as the U.S.,” Ascari said. “It pays for itself in about a year, and the industry norm is two to three years.”

PROJECT STOPPED

Del Monte halted its joint project with the Florida Department of Citrus because of mechanical problems and the cost of upgrading the equipment to the production levels required by Del Monte.

Jim Naff, deputy director of the department, said the failed system used an enzyme injection system to loosen the bond of the peel to the fruit. Residue from the enzyme damaged the citrus pulp to the level of preventing it from being marketable, he said.

Naff said Del Monte wanted 6,000 pounds per day in production, and to do that it required higher amounts of the enzyme treatment, which cut shelf life to about one to two days. To be successful, he said, the product needs a shelf life of about 10 days.

In October 2001, Del Monte partnered with the Department of Citrus in an effort to position fresh-cut oranges and grapefruit as a grab-and-go snack choice.

Del Monte established a partnership for proprietary peeling technology developed by the department in conjunction with Heinzen Manufacturing International, Gilroy, Calif.

After obtaining a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the department of citrus spent $500,000 to purchase and install the citrus-peeling machinery in Del Monte’s Plant City facility and gave Del Monte $250,000 to market the proposed program.

Naff said Del Monte spent about $81,000 of funds earmarked for marketing the program and will repay the department about $169,000 in unspent funds.