More mature, better-tasting oranges will grow repeat buyers, group says
By CECILIA PARSONS
For the Capital Press
Declining navel orange consumption and a competitive nudge from the mandarin sector are spurring a movement by a citrus trade group to change minimum legal maturity standards for harvest.
The board of California Citrus Mutual unanimously decided to seek a rule change from California Department of Food and Agriculture that sets a "California Standard" as the new bar for navel orange harvest. The goal is higher early season navel quality for consumers. The move would end a minimum sugar-acid ratio standard in place since 1915.
Once the new standard has been explained to growers, there has been very little objection, said CCM spokesman Bob Blakely. About 50 growers, field supervisors and other industry representatives attended a meeting in Bakersfield on Jan. 13 to hear about the new standard, which is based on consumer approval rather than minimum sugar levels.
Since 1915, navel oranges that have not reached a minimum of 8:1 sugar-acid ratio have been turned away at the packinghouses. Most affected have been early maturing fruit grown in Kern County, although in some years other growers have also experienced low sugar levels in the early varieties.
Two other citrus-growing states, Florida and Texas, have slightly higher ratios. Simply raising the ratio to 9:1 will not increase consumer acceptability, Blakely said.
Don Roark, an Exeter-area grower and board member at CCM, said change is in order to stem the loss of sales due to fruit quality.
"If we don't listen to the consumer we're missing a big message," said Roark.
The move by CCM came after an independent study of consumer approval of navel orange flavor. The "California Standard" for maturity is based on research conducted by the Citrus Research Board. It showed that either of two other tests of the fruit is a better indicator of flavor than the simple 8:1 sugar acid ratio.
The 2008 study by the independent research firm confirmed that finding. In addition to determining the brix level of fruit, the juice samples are also tested for acidity.
Citing the consumer study, in 2010 the CCM board voted to pursue an effort to change the standard. In most years, the start of harvest for the earliest ripening varieties of navels will be delayed 7 to 10 days, said Blakely.
The industry expects that with sweeter-tasting fruit at the beginning of the season, consumers will come back for more. Studies have shown that when consumers buy oranges that are not palatable, they are less likely to buy more. Sales lost due to a delay of harvest will be made up when consumer find better-tasting fruit, Roark explained.
"What we're trying to do is eliminate an area of consumer dissatisfaction," he added.
The early navel season in the southern San Joaquin Valley typically begins in late October or early November. Tests for sugar levels is at its peak then, and tapers off by the end of December.
Tom Wollenman at LoBue Bros. Packing in Lindsay said they expect little impact on early fruit movement due to higher standards for maturity. Buyers are already demanding better tasting fruit, he said.
"This is a positive thing for the industry," he added.
California Citrus Mutual is drafting language for the new standard and will send it to CDFA and ask for a rule change. There will be a comment period and possibly a public hearing before the CDFA Secretary approves or denies the change.