“Down with the imposters!” has become the battle cry of Peruvian sweet onion shippers.
Tired of seeing onions of every shape, color and pungency stickered as sweet and sold for a premium on retail shelves, importers are fighting back by having their products certified and demanding a standard that everyone must follow.
But who decides what’s sweet? Much less what that standard should be for an industry worth an estimated $425 million and that’s growing 7% each year?
Margret DeBruyn, president of Zeeland, Mich.-based DeBruyn Produce Co., echoes the frustration of many grower-shippers.
“When I’ve put in all the expense to do it the right way, and somebody comes in the back door with perhaps a U.S. onion that doesn’t have the appropriate sweetness certification, it really undermines the purity of the Peruvian market,” she said.
“It hurts everyone.”
Barry Rogers, president of Melbourne, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading, in the spring raised the need for a sweet onion standard. He’s still waiting for a meeting with lawmakers to discuss the issue.
“Florida citrus has a sugar standard, and most fruits and vegetables have standards, so why shouldn’t there be a taste standard for onions beyond the Vidalia?” Rogers said.
A number of grower-shippers, including Sweet Onion Trading and Greencastle, Pa.,-based giant Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., have selected National Onion Labs Inc. of Collins, Ga., to certify their sweet onions, starting in the fields of Peru, which they say helps farmers improve the quality of their crop.
These companies also have adopted NOL’s definition: “A sweet onion, when eaten raw, should have a mild and pleasant flavor that leaves an impression of sweetness and be free from off flavors.”
Rather than simply testing for pungency, which he says does not guarantee sweetness, NOL’s president David Burrell tests for the four qualities that consumers look for in a sweet onion: heat, flavor strength, aftertaste and sweetness.
“If you’re not testing, how do you know if your onions are sweet?” said Burrell, who uses rules and standards set by the Georgia Department of Agriculture in his certification work around the world.
“You just can’t show up to the Indy 500 ... with a bunch of money and say you’re going to put my Volkswagen Beetle in,” he said. “You have to have qualifying trials.
“There needs to be competition, but it needs to be among appropriately qualified product.”