Vicky BoydRobert LoBue, farm manager and co-owner of LoBue Citrus, Lindsay, Calif., checks the quality of a Heritage Reserve navel. The late-season fruit comes from 50-plus-year-old trees and is known for high sugar and rich flavor.With the start of the navel orange season this fall, California grower-packer-shippers will have a new minimum maturity standard designed to give consumers a better eating experience and, it is hoped, to increase repeat retail purchases.
The California Standard, as it is known, has been in the works for about nine years and is backed by several consumer taste studies conducted by the University of California, said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
It is only for navels and does not apply to valencias or other types of oranges.
Staking a claim
About 95% of the state’s grower-packer-shippers favored the change to try to counter increased market competition and declining navel returns, Nelsen said.
“The latest generation of purchasers has a different standard of what flavor is compared to the baby boomer set,” he said.
“They have more choices. Now, you have our own mandarin industry that is exploding, and there’s offshore fruit that provides a different flavor.”
The old minimum standard, in place for nearly 100 years, was simply a ratio of soluble solids, or sugars, to acid.
The new standard takes into account other sensory attributes tied to navel maturity.
Shippers will conduct maturity tests in the same way they have in the past ― they’ll simply use a different formula to analyze the results.
In taste tests led by Mary Lu Arpaia, an extension subtropical horticulture specialist at the University of California Kearney Agricultural Center, Parlier, 48% of consumers liked navels that met the new standard compared with 14% who said they didn’t, according to her research report.
Of those who responded with a “like,” 66% said they’d purchase fruit more frequently, 59% said they’d purchase more fruit than usual and nobody said they’d wait to purchase fruit.
Orange Cove, Calif.-based Booth Ranches tested early-season navels last year comparing the two maturity standards, and the California Standard would have delayed harvest by a couple of days, said Neil Galone, vice president of sales and marketing.
It also would have created a few more skips early in the season when they’d have to wait a day or two in between pickings for groves to meet the new minimums.
Nevertheless, he said the new standard is a good idea.
“If it gives the consumer a better early-on experience and allows the retailers to move more product early, it’s good for everybody,” Galone said.
Robert LoBue, farm manager and a co-owner of LoBue Citrus, Lindsay, Calif., agreed.
“It will make sure the flavor is better,” he said.
“That’s what we have to do ― give the consumer a better experience because we have to compete with mandarins. And they have a better flavor at that time of year.”
As the start of the navel nears, LoBue Citrus will be “very engaged in terms of educating the trade on what this means for their business and ours,” said Rick Osterhues, vice president of sales and marketing.