Pungency testing may be on the minds of Texas sweet onion shippers, but it’s not often on their agendas, according to David Burrell, president of National Onion Labs, Collins, Ga.
National Onion Labs, which started testing Vidalia onions for pungency in 1999 using a methodology developed at the University of Georgia, is on a quest to get shippers and buyers to buy into testing. The labs currently test onions from various regions, including Texas.
Most Texas onions are not tested, though, and therefore not certified as sweet, Burrell said.
"I’d say the largest percentage are not tested," he said. "The best proof is that we do a lot of retail product surveys, and last year in our March survey, 61% of what we found at the retail level was stickered as sweet but would not pass a simple pungency test."
The test is simple, takes less than a day and is inexpensive, Burrell said.
There is the matter of cost, though.
"Probably, if you’re looking at testing all the sweet onions and properly testing with a statistically valid method, it would cost the entire sweet onion industry about $2 million a year, or about 15 cents" per 40-pound unit, Burrell said. "It’s not an enormous proposition, but it takes some discipline for the retailers to require it of a $425 million industry."
Pungency is measured on a five-point scale, with any product scoring higher than five non-certifiable as a sweet onion, Burrell said.
"The impetus was one of the best Vidalia growers, who said early onions were killing the goose that laid the golden egg and that retailers were competing for the early onions," he said, which led to poor consumer reception.
"The best onions are the ones that are more mature," Burrell said. "Retailers were selling early onions that had poor flavor qualities."
Consumers ended up with a product that was something less than top quality, and they didn’t return to buy more onions, Burrell said.
"It turned the consumers off," he said.
Burrell combined a certification program that married global positioning systems and mapping with pungency testing.
"It provided the tool for the producer to give the retailer the optimum flavor, prevent non-qualifying product from going to the marketplace and really give the retailer a tool to say, ‘I don’t want the product until it’s ready.’"
National Onion Labs is one of two primary testing programs in the U.S. — the other is at Texas A&M University.
Burrell said he is urging retailers to require testing, wherever it’s done.
"There’s a definite trend toward understanding the need," he said. "Whether that has trended toward action where the retailers are requiring the product be acceptably validated is a still a question left unanswered."
Burrell said there is a "huge misunderstanding" that onions out of Texas and Mexico are automatically considered to be sweet.