Pungency testing on onions has fallen out of fashion, and that’s not good news to David Burrell, CEO of Collins, Ga.-based National Onion Labs, which is set up for that purpose.
Burrell said he expects that won’t change much during the 2014 Peruvian deal.
Retail buyers aren’t asking for testing, and that’s the problem, Burrell said.
“There’s really a lack of interest at the retailer and the industry levels to drive the process, which in reality is quite simple and cost-effective to do,” Burrell said.
If retail customers were demanding verified pungency results, as they do with, for example, third-party audits, the dynamic would change, Burrell said.
“If something is to be executed or sustained, there has to be a driving force behind it,” he said.
In the case of pungency testing, that force would have to come from retailers, and simply isn’t on any substantial level, Burrell said.
Buyers who can bypass the process will do so, Burrell said.
“The motivation of a buyer is to identify multiple suppliers, so that he can prove or sustain competitiveness between the suppliers, and the moment he starts saying, ‘OK, I want to have a tested product,’ there are limited suppliers, so that’s a buyer limiting his supply sources,” Burrell said.
Not enough suppliers are willing to go through the extra step, Burrell said.
“If the retailer required it, they’d all do it and we’d have a real cleanup in the products that are on the shelf, but buyers want multiple suppliers to assert that they’re getting the best value, so to limit the supply base to the product which is validated, a buyer says, ‘I want more people, not fewer people.’”
Times have changed in the last few years, Burrell said.
“Prior to 2008-09, there were enough players in the industry who were doing it to create multiple suppliers, but in 2008, the retail community just showed a real loss of interest and, now, the only testing that would be done is extremely miscellaneous in nature.”
National Onion Labs will test miscellaneous samples from Peru, Burrell said.
“But in terms of volumes of testing, it’s just no longer done in the industry,” he said.
Barry Rogers, president of Grant, Fla.-based Sweet Onion Trading Co, agreed that pungency testing at independent labs has fallen off.
“There’s nobody really doing any pungency testing anymore,” he said.
The process had a legitimate role, Rogers said.
“National Onions Labs, for so many years, was just basically the place that took some of the guesswork out of it,” he said.
It’s not that testing has gone out of vogue as much as support never was “what it needed to be” in order for the lab to be successful.
“There were a couple of us that were true believers — Keystone and ourselves — but it wasn’t enough to keep it going,” Rogers said.
Rogers praised Burrell’s program.
“David’s program was solid and he’d get solid results, but, you know, it’s an investment of a year-after-year thing,” he said.
The consistency of the Century, a sweet variety grown in Peru’s dry climate, mitigates the need for widespread testing, said Walt Dasher, co-owner of Glennville, Ga.-based grower-shipper G&R Farms.
“It’s a very late variety for Vidalia and sometimes you can run into problems with heat in Vidalia, but in Peru, it performs outstanding,” he said. “It loves the desert, sand, low moisture. It’s made for that sandy dirt. It’s very disease-resistant.”
That consistency is the key to rendering testing all but moot, said Karl Bonhomme, president of Miami-based Bonhomme International Trading Corp.
“You don’t see any testing at all, unless the U.S. client requires it, and they are not, and at the consumer level, you never find any complaints,” Bonhomme said.
G&R tests early cartons out of Peruvian fields, and they compare well to the Vidalia onion, Dasher said.
“To someone who knows onions, if you blindfold them, you can tell the difference in taste, but most people you couldn’t tell a lot of difference,” he said.
Vidalia, Ga.-based Bland Farms LLC tests its onions with the “Georgia method,” which company owner Delbert Bland describes as “a more strenuous process” than others in the U.S.
“The bottom line is these onions eat very, very well, very comparable to Vidalia. It’s the only onion we grow outside Georgia that has the flavor profile the Vidalia does,” Bland said.