A premium price

Recently, a willingness-to-pay study has shown that consumers are willing to pay up to 20 cents more for high-quality, sliced, fresh packed pears treated with a ripening compound compared to sliced fresh packed pears with no treatment.

The study shows the promise of the slicing segment to the pear industry: Utilization of small-sized pears, and the proposed premium they could bring, has the potential to add up to $100 million to the financial bottom line of the pear industry in the next five years.

The problem with pear consumption

The North American fresh pear industry has cited increasing per capita consumption as its top priority year after year. However, customer habits, biology of the fruit and perhaps the current fruit packing and sale infrastructure stand in the way.

Pears are unique in that they are harvested mature but unripe, and the fruit is then conditioned to ripen. Conditioning is a process in which pears are exposed to cold temperature (less than 1 degree Celsius) for a pre-determined length of time, which is cultivar-specific (Sugar & Basile, 2013). To deter losses during handling, shippers and retailers tend to sell pears without conditioning, resulting in less than desirable fruit and diminishing repeat purchase by consumers.

Pre-ripened or conditioned pears, on the other hand, attract repeat customers, and it is evident in their increased willingness to pay for a consistent quality fruit (Zhang et. al, 2010; Gallardo, 2011; Gallardo et al., 2011).

The early 2000s brought a timely gift for the apple industry in the form of 1-methycyclopropene (1-MCP) or SmartFresh, just as consumers were getting disenchanted with the quality of the fruit on the shelf. 1-MCP binds to the ethylene receptors and makes the fruit insensitive to ethylene, prolonging its storage and improving the shelf life and quality of the fruit.

Not to be left behind, the pear industry, which has not seen any major leaps in consumption over the last several decades, tried using 1-MCP in the hopes of delivering a perfect piece of fruit to the consumer. 1-MCP worked in blocking ripening in pears. In fact, it worked too well. Pears treated with 1-MCP failed to ripen consistently after they were removed from the controlled atmosphere (Argenta et al., 2016; Wang et al., 2015; Chiriboga et al., 2013; Watkins, 2006). No amount of conditioning or exogenous ethylene could rectify the situation.

The quest for a perfect slice of pear

The difficulties of mass producing perfect fresh sliced pears were best summarized by Tony Freytag, chief executive officer of Crunch Pak, a Cashmere, Washington-based operation that controls over 50 percent of the nearly $500 million fresh sliced apple market, during a presentation at the 2013 Washington State Horticultural Association annual conference (Warner, 2013). A juicy, melting pear at 6- to 8-pound firmness range is good for eating but will turn to mush when sliced.

Pear fruit with slightly higher firmness of 8- to 10-pounds has good flavor but bruises heavily when sliced, and fruit with 12- to 14-pound firmness, while great for slicing, has no flavor and dries out quickly. The sweet spot may be at the 10- to 12-pound range, but achieving a 21-day shelf life like apples would not be feasible (Freytag 2013). Anyone who deals with pears knows that it is easy to sort the fruit by size but not by firmness. It seems like an insurmountable issue.

Closer to reality

A technology patented by Washington State University (Dhingra and Hendrickson, 2017) shows increasing potential for the predictable and consistent ripening of the pear fruit treated with 1-MCP. As a first application, we evaluated if we could ripen a 1-MCP treated pear after slicing.

The preliminary results were very encouraging with the 1-MCP treated fruit: slicing and then treating the fruit with the ripening compound resulted in ethylene production at five times that of the 1-MCP treated fruit control. With this result, we partnered with Crunch Pak, and supported by the Washington State Department of Agriculture and USA Pears, we produced and evaluated fresh sliced pears. The shelf life was more than 21 days; however, the ripening compound treatment resulted in the production of sugars and typical pear aroma within three days of packaging.

The willingness-to-pay study that followed, conducted at the Portland Food Innovation Center, showed that it is critical to focus on quality.

Proof is in the slice, so to speak

For any commodity, the real proof that a product has any value is when a customer is willing to put their money where their mouth is. Analysis of the responses obtained from 120 participants in the study revealed that people who liked sliced pears were willing to pay up to 20 cents more per 2-ounce packet for pears treated with the ripening component over untreated pears (Ikiz et al – in review).

Overall, that is about 46 percent more than the retail prices for a 2-ounce bag of sliced apples. The consumer sample who participated in the study demanded healthful and convenient products. Fresh sliced pears have the potential to provide all these advantages and enable a vertical jump in consumption.

The analysis revealed that fresh sliced pears were liked by consumers who prefer locally grown products, buy at conventional grocery stores and consider as important labels indicating certified organic, healthfulness, sustainable agriculture, food safety, non-GMO and eco-labels. In general consumers in our sample who liked fresh packed sliced pears consumed Anjou, Bartlett and Asian pears more frequently compared to the consumers who disliked fresh packed sliced pears. If this study is any indication, any compromise on quality can deal a further death blow for pear consumption.

The key is quality

Time and again, the ability to deliver consistent superior quality triumphs in the market place. Placing a bad product on the shelf has its perils, especially as a younger generation demands convenience and consistent quality. Another misstep can be a slippery slope for the pear industry in particular; the industry has not seen a major upswing in consumer purchases due to lack of novel offerings and competition from other fruit, such as berries and fruit-derived products, for several decades.

Based on preliminary calculations derived from personal communications with some pear industry members, it has been estimated that the value of a single pear fruit at 14 cents increases to $1.14 when sliced. The fresh sliced apple industry is currently valued at about $500 million with exponential increase in demand over the next decade. The projections predict that a high-quality fresh sliced pear market could become a $100 million market in the next five years.

An opportunity to add millions of dollars to the pear industry’s financial bottom line beckons. •

– by Amit Dhingra and Karina Gallardo

The $363,000 study by Amit Dhingra and Karina Gallardo received funding from the Washington State Department of Agriculture and USA Pears, a federal marketing board. Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., is an associate professor of genomics and biotechnology in Washington State University’s Department of Horticulture in Pullman, Washington. Karina Gallardo, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Extension economist at WSU’s Puyallup Research and Extension Center.


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