WENATCHEE, Wash. — The Northwest pear industry could increase its annual market by millions of dollars when it begins using Washington State University Ripening Technology and develops a fresh-slice market, a WSU scientist says.
A Portland Food Innovation Center consumer survey has shown people are willing to pay 20 cents more per 2-ounce bag for high-quality sliced pears treated with the WSU ripening compound than untreated slices, Amit Dhingra, WSU genomics and biotechnology professor, told growers at the Northcentral Washington Pear Day in Wenatchee on Jan. 17.
Several years ago, Dhingra identified a natural chemical compound that unblocks the natural molecule 1-methycyclopropene (1-MCP) sold as SmartFresh, which is used to block the ripening of apples and pears.
SmartFresh has been used for years in apples. It works better in apples since they are picked ripe and have good sugar levels when treated.
However, pears are picked mature but not ripe, so SmartFresh leaves them with an inability to ripen consistently. It’s not used much and the industry is left with less than perfect conditioning and ethylene treatment for ripening pears after controlled atmosphere storage, Dhingra told Capital Press after his presentation.
“We can ripen predictably and consistently with our compound. But the next goal, in collaboration with the fruit companies, is evaluating how many days it takes to ripen fruit from different levels of SmartFresh and initial fruit firmness,” Dhingra said.
Once data is developed from several seasons, companies will be able to deliver consistent quality, he said.
“When 1-MCP was discovered it took 10 years for the industry to begin to understand it. So this will take development time,” he said. “In the next three to five years, WSU ripening compound should become as common as SmartFresh.”
Ripening compound is being perfected for whole pears but its progress is faster for sliced pears, which have yet to be commercialized, Dhingra said.
Younger consumers want convenience and consistent quality and are willing to pay more for it, he said. Sliced pears offer convenience and could become a $100 million market in five years, he said.
Crunch Pak, in Cashmere, represents 50 percent of the $500 million annual sliced apple market. Along with USA Pears and the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the company has partnered with Dhingra in producing and evaluating sliced pears.
The entire U.S. fresh and processing pear production (Washington, Oregon and California) is about $475 million annually, according to USDA.
With ripening control pears can be treated with SmartFresh at variable levels of fruit firmness and with variable levels of SmartFresh to extend storage duration, Dhingra said.
It can help with the timing of domestic and export sales and can benefit the canning business, he said.
All of that, combined with a robust pear slicing business, could increase pear consumption, which has been a top industry goal since at least 1991, he said.
Another element, he said, is better storage quality of organic pears that can be achieved with an organically certified compound, applied preharvest to delay ripening of fruit on the tree to allow organic fruit to grow larger and bring better prices.
“Unlike SmartFresh, this compound does not permanently block ripening, only delays it, so we can use ethylene or conditioning to ripen the fruit later,” he said.
The organic compound has the potential to reduce fruit drop and eliminate internal browning, he said.
“The goal of all of these things is to deliver a consistent and good tasting product to the customer which will benefit the industry by increasing repeat consumer purchasing and benefits the consumer because they get what they want,” Dhingra said.