To certify or not to certify.
That’s the question sweet onion growers from Peru are facing this season as more retailers start to request that onions be certified sweet.
“It’s becoming more popular,” said Margret DeBruyn, chief executive officer of DeBruyn Produce Co., Zeeland, Mich.
National Onion Labs, Collins, Ga., offers growers a new kind of test that can certify onions as sweet.
No testing is currently mandatory, nor is it necessarily standard procedure in the industry.
“It’s all voluntary, and it’s driven by retailer concern for flavor quality,” said David Burrell, president of National Onion Labs.
Burrell says the Pungency Plus flavor testing program can test for what the consumer will actually taste when eating an onion, specifically the heat, strength, off flavors and sweetness.
“Samples are collected at the fields and then we do the advanced flavor analysis so the growers will learn to better manage the factors affecting flavor,” he said. “It’s all about making a better product for consumers.”
Still, not all growers are ready to jump on board.
“Most people haven’t really gotten into it yet,” DeBruyn said. “At this point, the funding and justification for that isn’t really there.”
Because of several past seasons of low profits, she said, the added expense of going through the certification process will not be an easy thing for most in the industry. The process can cost at least 25 cents per bag, which may not sound like a lot, but it adds up.
“Every penny counts, and one of the challenges with this that I’ve seen is that as much as retailers want that certification, they aren’t wanting to give up their quarter, or even half of their quarter, to the grower,” she said.
Plus, with all the demands of food safety certifications and other required costs, DeBruyn doesn’t expect to see many companies that feel comfortable paying extra money.
“Growers are considering it, but they want to know who is going to take out that money when it comes to the extra expense,” she said.
Burrell says the cost for the testing is minor in comparison to the amount of added sales it will bring in.
“The money will come from increased sales resulting from increased consumer satisfaction. Consumers will come back, and they will buy more onions,” he said. “Increasing the quality of the product has a huge impact on repeat sales.”
DeBruyn said retailers could step up and pay for the certification themselves if it’s something the consumer is demanding.
“If retailers were willing to pay that, I think (grower-shippers) would do it without question,” she said.
Burrell also believes retailers will need to take charge of the process.
“Without retailer demand for flavor verification, the consumer experience is very inconsistent,” he said. “Sometimes they will get great sweet onions and at other times the onions are so hot they’ll blow your socks off, and the consumer cannot tell the difference by looking at the onion.”
Some companies have taken advantage of the Nation Onion Lab’s testing procedures and implemented the process.
Keystone Fruit Marketing Inc., Greencastle, Pa., offers Certified Sweet onions through National Onion Labs, according to Marty Kamer, vice president of Keystone Fruit Marketing, Inc., Greencastle, Pa.
Sweet Onion Trading Co., Melbourne, Fla., also tests all of their shipments, not just the ones from Peru.
“We do it as a service to our customers so we can assure them they are actually getting a sweet onion,” Derek Rodgers, director of sales, said.
He expects to see more shippers begin certifying.
“The industry goal is to eliminate the fake sweet, which is essentially a hot onion with a sweet sticker,” Rodgers said.
DeBruyn also said there are some issues with mislabeling onions that can cause trouble for sweet onions. However, she has seen more issues with that domestically than from Peru.
“Anything coming out of Peru is likely going to be a flat onion. There’s only a couple types of seeds grown down there, and it’s just the nature of the ground and everything else,” she said.
Brian Kastick, president and general manager of Oso Sweet Onions, Charleston, W. Va., agrees Peru’s longevity in the sweet onion deal should help assure customers that the onions are really sweet onions.
He says he hasn’t used the National Onion Labs for sweet onion certification because it doesn’t seem it would benefit its customers.
“We’ve been doing this for more than two decades and we feel very confident we produce a great product. It’s the same farmer, the same place, and everyone says they are sweet,” he said.