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Foodservice buyers are interested in fresh-sliced pears if consistent quality can be assured.

Foodservice buyers are interested in fresh-sliced pears if consistent quality can be assured.

Convenience is king in America today. Time-strapped shoppers want things fast, easy, and on demand. Convenience is one of the main factors behind the phenomenal growth of the fresh-cut industry. This category has seen double-digit growth at retail for a number of years, and has a huge market in foodservice as well. Lettuce and melons are the leaders in fresh-cut produce, but apples are seeing some of the fastest growth.

So, what about pears? Not to be left behind, the Pear Bureau Northwest recently applied for, and received, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to conduct a –feasibility study on fresh-cut pears. The study was just finalized with some interesting and encouraging results.

This feasibility study was not the first venture into researching the potential for fresh-cut pears, as the Pear Bureau has funded consumer market research and taste tests on three other occasions in the past five years. Those studies showed that there is indeed demand for fresh-cut pears, but they also pointed out the difficulties facing the industry.

The study just completed was designed to explore current availability, identify obstacles inhibiting large-scale production of fresh-cut pears in the United States, and answer several questions pertaining to production and demand. More than 25 trade contacts were interviewed, including fresh-cut fruit-processing company officials, retail and foodservice buyers, distributors, and school foodservice contacts. Following are some interesting findings from the research.

Current status

First of all, in terms of the status of cut pears, there is some limited retail availability, primarily with specialty produce retailers in the Pacific Northwest where sliced pears typically retail for $2.00 to $2.50 per pound. Foodservice outlets, primarily school systems, represent the predominant market for sliced pears at this time. Sliced pears are available in trays or bags (two- to five-pound sizes) for foodservice use and in individual four- and eight-ounce bags for retail. D’Anjou and Bartlett are the most common pear varieties used for slicing. Sizes 90 and 100 are most commonly used, but it is possible to use larger and smaller fruit. A 14-day shelf life is common for sliced pears.

Market potential

As for market potential, the respondents generally agreed that there is, or would be, a demand for fresh-cut pears. Fresh-cut produce is a big category already, and it was noted that retailers and foodservice buyers want new items and greater variety of fresh-cut fruit. School foodservice was identified as a strong target, and retail chains are interested in sliced pears, if consistency issues are resolved. Large processors and retail contacts believe the market for sliced pears could be one-sixth to one-tenth the size of the sliced apple market. For the 2007–2008 season, an estimated 163 million pounds of apples—the equivalent of about 4.1 million 40-pound boxes—will be designated for the fresh-sliced market.

Obstacles

Pears need to be ripe (soft) to be thoroughly enjoyed. Yet once they are soft enough for consumer acceptance, at about seven pounds or less, transportation damage becomes more likely, especially when transported more than 100 miles or so. Also, obtaining consistency in ripeness is a major challenge. Inconsistent quality and end-product appearance has caused customers to discontinue the product. A lack of fully automated production has dampened interest among large regional fresh-cut producers. Sliced pears remain labor intensive, and there are issues around yields, due to their narrow necks in some cases. Both of these issues affect the bottom-line profit potential. The relatively limited (14-day) shelf life adds risk for large-scale retail or foodservice distribution, and there are still questions about market demand among many processors.

The path forward

Next steps include more research on the problem areas identified; identifying or developing automated production; exploring of consumer preferences regarding varieties, size, and appearance; and researching the best packaging for transporting and marketing sliced pear to retail and the foodservice industries.

I believe labor and equipment issues, product consistency, and packaging will be the most important issues to overcome. Likewise, proving the demand side of the equation will be a big incentive for firms to move forward. But we are not very far away from a breakthrough followed by a tipping point. Equipment is available, but it will need more attention in order to modify it for pears in a more automated fashion. As for consistency, I believe the strides in the ripening program will help here. If a processor conditions pears before slicing them, they will have much more control and consistency in the box or load. The yield problems might be overcome with creative line extensions such as dicing slices that are not suitable for the market. Bosc, Concorde, and Comice should be considered in the process, as they can all be eaten crunchier and still have good flavor.

Recent studies by the Perishables Group pointed out that 38 percent of consumers had purchased fresh-cut fruit in the last 60 days. They purchase for convenience and to save time. Fresh-cut produce is a growth industry, and pears have a bright future in it once we overcome the issues outlined here. People are looking for healthful meals in their routine foodservice dining and for fast, healthy foods and snacks at home. My belief is that foodservice will be the main outlet for fresh-cut pears, but with retail opportunities as well. The feasibility study’s best guess regarding apple usage in fresh-cut is the equivalent of over four million box equivalents. If pears are even 10 percent as successful, that could represent 400,000 box equivalents per year removed from the fresh market.

Additionally, it is possible that smaller fruit or lower grades could be utilized, all of which will strengthen the retail market for pears. Fresh-cut will continue to play an important role in the future, and our industry needs to be a part of it. The industry is very close, and I forecast that there will be a commercial fresh-cut pear product available within 18 to 24 months. 

Kevin Moffitt is president and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest. He can be reached at kmoffitt@usapears.com.