AgroFresh, Inc., is introducing a certification program for the 2006 apple season that will enable U.S. shippers who treat fruit with its SmartFresh product to use a special logo on their shipping cartons. SmartFresh is the brand name for MCP (1-methylcyclopropene).

Packer-shippers who join the voluntary certification program will need to have their practices verified by a third-party auditor.

Raphael Crawford, AgroFresh’s vice president for the Americas, said the idea behind the program is to provide a way for packer-shippers to prove to retailers that they have used the SmartFresh Quality System in accordance with AgroFresh’s recommendations.

Big investment

“We have customers who make a significant investment in SmartFresh,” he said. “They do it because they’re trying to deliver the highest quality apple.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that shipping cartons be marked with the names of postharvest products used to treat the fruit, such as DPA (diphenylamine, a scale inhibitor), fungicides, or MCP.

John Rice, sales and marketing director at Rice Fruit Company in Pennsylvania, said that because not all fruit is treated the same, most packers mark their cartons “May have been treated with…” followed by the names of the products they might have used. The fruit is rarely treated with all of them.

The SmartFresh logo will be used on wholesale marketing materials and containers, such as cartons or pallets. Use of the logo will be at the discretion of the shipper and the buyer.

Scott Chapman, AgroFresh’s vice president for global marketing, said the brand is designed to let retailers know when they’re getting SmartFresh Quality System apples, because that has a value to them.

Crawford said retailers have been asking for a way to know if fruit had been treated, and some of the large users wanted some way to indicate that they had made a substantial investment in using SmartFresh to treat the fruit. The treatment cost is about $8 per bin.

“This is not an idea that the AgroFresh Group came up with on their own,” he said. “We’re trying to answer a need that retailers and customers brought to us.”

AgroFresh’s own staff members apply SmartFresh at packing and storage facilities, but Crawford said the certification provides a level of traceability that goes beyond just the application.

The certification process will be part of a food safety and quality program, and users will be audited twice annually either by Safe Quality Food or an SQF-accredited auditor. As an addition to what many shippers are already doing in terms of food safety certification, it should not create substantially more paperwork for packers, he added.

“The program does not intend to check every piece of fruit in every box for quality. It provides reasonable assurances that retailers have received fruit that’s the very best it could be.”

It requires that packer-shippers follow AgroFresh’s use guidelines when applying SmartFresh. These pertain to the quality parameters of fruit that can benefit most from the SmartFresh treatment. Participating shippers will also need to keep on file documentation showing the specifications of each of their customers in terms of fruit quality, such as minimum firmness or sugar levels.

“What we’re trying to ensure is that not only is SmartFresh used, but it’s used on fruit that meets a high standard of quality,” Crawford explained. “It’s about traceability, credibility, and consistency.”

The program is voluntary. Packers can use SmartFresh and choose not to be certified, but that means they can’t use the logo.

Crawford said he expects that most packers who choose to join the certification program will be able to meet the program’s specifications.

“Our expectation is there won’t be many who fail to qualify for the logo,” he said.

AgroFresh has a team of trained consultants to explain the program to customers across the country and help them become certified. Participants will need to be ready to be audited before the 2006 harvest. Those that are already doing food safety certification will be more prepared than others to take part, Crawford said.

Initial costs covered

AgroFresh will cover the initial costs, including at least the first audit, for those who voluntarily participate, he added, but shippers will be expected later to pick up the costs, which he estimated at about $1,000 per packer per year.

West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, Inc., Wenatchee, Washington, said he believes SmartFresh has been a great benefit to his company and to the industry.

“I think it’s great that there’s a process to authenticate who’s using it and not using it,” he said.

However, he said there is still much to learn about how to apply SmartFresh to the various apple varieties. One concern he has about a program that is designed to create demand at retail for the treatment, is that retailers might want SmartFresh to be used on all apples, even when it might not be beneficial.

“I think they’re trying to take a generic message and apply it where a generic message isn’t true all the time,” he said.

Mathison said it’s also costly to treat fruit where it might not be necessary. “If you add up the cost of SmartFresh, it literally is the biggest line-item cost the grower would have,” he said.

Dr. Jim Mattheis, plant physiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Wenatchee, said SmartFresh is not recommended on Braeburn because it is prone to internal browning and breakdown, which MCP seems to enhance.

He also questions whether a SmartFresh treatment would be necessary for fruit that will be sold soon after harvest.

Rice said he had concerns about a branding program for SmartFresh.

“The average consumer would much prefer to bite into an apple that was crisp and juicy than soft and mealy. But, given the choice, they would prefer to believe nothing had been done to the apple since it came off the tree. To tell the consumer we’ve been storing it in a room with 1.5 percent oxygen and temperature control, and treated it with an ethylene inhibitor, and that’s why you’re getting a crisp and juicy apple—it just doesn’t play very well.”

SmartFresh is used in more than 25 countries around the world.