EMERYVILLE, Calif. - Three retailers are working with Scientific Certification Systems here on a project to boost the flavor of fresh fruits.
Under its third-party Flavor Management program, which can lead to Flavor Rich certification, SCS is combining flavor research with direct sensory evaluation and chemical/physical product analysis to help growers and shippers enhance the taste of fresh produce. Three major retail chains, who do not wish to be identified, are involved in the program.
"[The retailers] are not advertising [their SCS-measured, high-flavor fruits as Flavor Rich] yet, but they're getting closer to doing that," an SCS official said. "They're taking a hardline on peaches, strawberries, melons and tomatoes."
The Flavor Rich program has strategic value for retailers, SCS officials said. While the potential for upgrading flavor is paramount, it's also important for a retailer to be able to scientifically measure the flavor profile of his products against others in the market. The program will give retailers, working with their suppliers, a systematic way to obtain high-flavor products, and the ability to gauge the flavor against SCS's flavor standard.
"We go into a market area and we'll do tests for that week, and that day, of a competitor's peaches, for example," said Stan Rhodes, SCS president. "Flavor is sometimes unpredictable. A heat wave in the Central Valley, for instance, can reverse the sugar content, but with our program, retailers can at least see where they stand in the marketplace. They want to get competitive sales driven by flavor."
Inconsistent flavor has been a perennial problem for the industry. Retailers SN interviewed expressed enthusiasm about any program that would enhance the taste of certain commodities and eventually guarantee that some would meet a high-flavor standard. All the retailers who talked to SN said flavor is a top priority with their customers and they're willing to pay for it.
"Flavor makes the biggest impression, the lasting impression," said Tony Mirack, produce buyer/merchandiser at McCaffrey's, a three-unit, upscale independent based in Langhorne, Pa. "When a customer takes a piece of fruit home with him, takes a bite of it and enjoys the flavor, the price issue goes away. He just remembers where he bought it and why."
Other industry veterans agreed.
"People are tired of eating peaches that don't taste like peaches. [If they don't get the flavor] they won't come back," said Ray Klocke, president of consulting firm Klocke Advantage, Scottsdale, Ariz. "There is a strong concern, or rather a need, on the part of retailers to get better taste. If [the SCS program] is a vehicle to accomplish that, it's a good one."
A veteran food retailer, Klocke served as vice president, produce/floral at Safeway; vice president of produce, ShopRite; and vice president, produce/floral at Kroger before launching his own consulting firm.
Flavor consistency will require heavy participation by seeders and growers, Klocke said. And that's exactly where the SCS program is taking root. Officials said they've gotten positive feedback from a number of seed companies, and they will continue to work with growers and shippers.
Last year, when he described the program's goals, Wil Sumner, SCS technical director of food and agriculture services, emphasized SCS' plan to establish a flavor rating standard that can serve as the basis for a national standard.
Even though the program was unveiled recently, the flavor initiative has been in the works for some time.
"We've been working on this for three years up and down the supply chain," said Linda Brown, SCS executive vice president.
Brown described SCS' tests and evaluations that go far beyond determining brix level for overall sweetness and ripeness. Testing, for example, in addition to checking the brix level, also determines the proportion of the three different types of sugar in a fruit at every checkpoint. Sugar levels can change while the fruit is in transit.
"The fruits are tested at several points from the grower level up, from the field to the retailer," Brown said.
As part of its effort to develop a flavor standard, the company, over the past year, assembled sensory panels that included chefs and other culinary-trained people.
Brown and other SCS officials said they expect results to be fast, since seed breeders, growers and others along the supply chain have been on board for quite a while.
"I would say, based on research we've done, that we can change the flavor level of key fruits by 20% to 30% in the next 12 to 18 months," Rhodes said.
Initially, certification will be aimed at providing independent assurances that comprehensive Flavor Management plans are in place. Over time, the certification program will expand to include point-of-purchase product identification, and should eventually lead to Flavor Rich stickers appearing on fresh fruit, SCS officials said. Another part of the programs will involve offering retailers advice on how to sell produce based on flavor attributes.
SCS, established in 1984 as a third-party certifier for testing pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, is best known for developing the NutriClean certification program, which guarantees produce is "pesticide residue-free." Several retailers carry the certified produce.