(April 4, 2:40 p.m.) Retailers and wholesalers are on one side, with grower-shippers on the other as the U.S. Department of Agriculture reviews comments on a proposal that would increase the amount of shatter allowed under the U.S. grade standards for table grapes.

Shatter refers to grapes that fall off the stem during shipping.

Jimmie Turner, spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said the agency had received 58 comments on the issue as of April 2. Though the comment period ended March 27, Turner said it was likely USDA would receive a few more comments mailed before that date.

Turner said USDA will review the comments as quickly as possible, but there was no timeline to resolve a dispute that has been ongoing since the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League and Western Growers, Irvine, Calif., petitioned the agency for revised standards in 2005.

“It would recognize the evolution of packaging into bags and clamshells,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League. “Shatter was a defect because it wasn’t sold. At the end of the day, it was at the bottom of a lug, and it wasn’t sold.”

In the past two decades, however, grapes have moved from a bulk commodity to a packaged one, and shatter no longer is seen as shrink. A 2005 survey of 1,500 U.S. and Canadian shoppers revealed that more than 80% of consumers thought grape packages with shatter levels of up to 10% were of good or excellent quality, according to the Fresno-based California Table Grape Commission.

That opinion isn’t shared by everyone.

In a letter to the USDA, Brendon Cull, director of government relations and regulatory affairs for Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., said high levels of shatter are unacceptable to many consumers.

“Our experience has consistently shown that our customers seek out the bags with the most berries still attached to the stem,” he said.

Darvel Kirby, business director for produce with United Supermarkets Ltd., Lubbock, Texas, also opposed the change.

“We all lose when the grade is weakened and our standards are lowered,” he said in comments.

The California Grape & Tree Fruit League and Western Growers initially requested a 10% allowance for shattered berries. USDA had two comment periods for proposed rule changes without a resolution in 2006, and a proposed rule was pulled last summer because there was no consensus.

Current grade standards allow for 12% total defects. The latest proposal would provide a 5% allowance for shatter that would not be scored against the 12% limit. That means a package could have 17% shatter and still make No. 1 grade.

Patrick Davis, president of the Arlington, Va.-based North American Perishable Agricultural Receivers, said in comments that an additional 3% would be applicable in situations where Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act good delivery tolerances apply, pushing the total to 20%.

Davis said forcing wholesalers to accept grapes with 17% or 20% shatter would put them in an unfair situation.

“Additional time would be required for them to resell the grapes to a retailer, during which time the shatter process will continue,” he said. “It is entirely possible that shatter could far exceed 20% by the time the grapes are purchased by a customer.”

Davis also said shattered grapes are more susceptible to microbiological contamination, resulting in reduced shelf life.

Regardless of what the USDA decides, most retailers have their own specifications for grapes, said Mike Aiton, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Sun World International LLC, Bakersfield, Calif.

Then why the debate?

“There are customers other than retailers,” he said.