QUALITY: THE APPEARANCE
The first quality criterion, when speaking about quality of a fresh produce, it is the visual aspect. You don't agree? It does not surprise me, yet you are mistaken. I'm not saying that it is the main criterion, but it is the first one. You will understand.
Formerly, fresh products were only available in markets and neighborhood stores. The seller was also the one who advised. Stood between the consumer and the seller, a dialogue for selecting the best product for a particular purpose. A tomato is not chosen the same way to put it in salads, to stuff it, or to put it into a ratatouille. Similarly, the dialog used to determine the time of consumption. If the same tomato salad is consumed during the same day, its point of maturity has not to be the same as if the salad will be made three days later. The seller must know the product and recommend the most appropriate.
We still find this on the village or neighborhood markets and in specialty stores. Unfortunately, today, about three-quarters of the fruits and vegetables are purchased without this advice, in supermarkets.
To this must be added that formerly, a majority of urban families retained strong ties to the country, by their parents or grandparents. This culture was kept fresh by this relationship. The link with the campaign was strong. Today, it is still the case for an ever lower part of the population, at least in industrialized countries.
We have to face facts. Lifestyle changed much in 50 years. It's a matter of time, convenience, and priorities. Many people prefer to do their shopping quickly, and keep available time to play sports, going to movies or out with friends. So they go to the supermarket, which offers them these benefits, but they must buy alone, without advice.
Most consumers do not know how to choose the products. This culture, usually transmitted from mother to daughter, who was to know the foods to choose, to preserve and cook them, got lost in the majority of families. Working women are the majority. They are busy mothers of families, who do not want to spend their limited available time for domestic activities.
The visual appearance of products has become the first selection criterion. It is by the glance that the product is chosen.
Supermarkets have understood this development and mostly present nice products.
Varietal selection of fruit and vegetables has devoted considerable resources to improve the visual appearance of the products, sometimes at the expense of taste. Similarly, many bi-colored fruits, by definition irregular in color, have evolved into a red color ever more intense and uniform. A good example is the Gala apple, sweet and very much appreciated fruit, which has evolved since the 80s, from a red-pink color on about 20-30% of its surface, to a deep red on over 75% of its surface (now called Royal Gala) or a red almost complete, but still streaked.
The actual Royal Gala Variety. The fruit is the same. The colour is the only change.
The original Gala variety
But what is a beautiful product?
The aesthetic criteria are specific to each product. It is obvious that a first choice apple cannot look like a first choice lettuce.
So here is a short list of criteria that define the product's appearance:
- The cleanliness. It may seem strange to you to begin with that, but it is actually the first point. Almost all fresh products go through a washing step, intended to remove all dust and dirt that they can bring. The most obvious cases are the vegetables that grow underground, potato, carrots, radishes, turnips, sweet potatoes, etc. But other products are also washed to remove dust or dirt (manual harvesting in the rain can leave traces of sludge that must be removed), for reasons of hygiene (the water for washing is usually treated with chlorine, bleach, or hydrogen peroxide) in order to eliminate the risk of fungi (conservation rots) or bacteriological (health risks contamination).
- The form. Each product has its own characteristics, but they must be consistent with what the consumer expects. Standardization has defined these criteria. Inside of the same product, varieties may have different characteristics of shape, as is the case with tomatoes. The consumer must be able to recognize the product at first glance.
- The color. Again, it depends on the product. Tomatoes or apples can have a wide variety of colors, depending on the variety. But for example, an apple Golden should vary between a yellow-green and a deep yellow, possibly with a slightly colored face non streaked bright red (the blush). As against a Granny Smith should be bright green, without blush. A Royal Gala will be intense red in about 75% of its surface, and ridged, etc.
- The shine, the brightness. This is a more subjective criterion, but a shiny appearance is associated with a sense of freshness to consumers. This is moreover true in most cases, since an older product becomes dehydrated and loses its shine. For this reason, some products can be brushed to increase their brilliance, even waxed (with edible vegetable waxes, whose use is strictly regulated).
- The turgor. It is also associated (rightly) to the freshness. A dehydrated product, withered, suggests that it has been too long waiting a buyer, and probably will not be good (which may be totally wrong). Dehydrated lettuce have lung leaves, while the consumer waits it to be crunchy.
- The appearance of the stem. The stem is the tail of the apple or cherry, the star of the orange, in short the rest of the attachment point of the fruit on the plant. If it is dark, withered, detached, it suggests that the product has been picked (too) long time ago.
- The blemishes. These are spots due to rubbing during cultivation, scars of hail or of attacks diseases or insects, small physiological deformations. Standardization outlines acceptable defects and the surface they may occupy. Non-compliant products are downgraded from Ist to IInd or IIIrd category, or discarded if the defects are excessive. It can mean industry, to be made into soup, puree, compote or juice, or simply trash.
- Handling faults. They can occur at any time between harvest and consumption. These are too tight fingerprints on the delicate fruit, too long nails shots, shocks of all kinds. They also will be criteria of non-purchase for the consumer (even when caused the fault itself). For this reason the various players in the production and distribution of fresh foods chain are especially attentive to the quality of the handling work. For this reason also, it is unfortunate that more and more products are offered for sale in bulk (although they were carefully packed in individual cells before), and groped by many hands more or less delicate (and more or less clean), that make that the late afternoon displays are anything but attractive, and that the affected products have a good chance to finish discarded.
This visual quality will determine, for the grower, the settlement value of his work since the classification of the product depends on it. Be aware that the price differences for the farmer between Ist choice and IInd choice are from 2 to 4 times, and still double for a IIIrd choice.
For example, a product paid 1 euro to the farmer in Ist choice will be paid between 25 to 50 cents in IInd choice and between 10 and 15 cents in IIIrd choice.
The work to grow the product is virtually the same. The farmer has every interest, to be able to live with dignity from his work, to make every effort to make products with impeccable appearance.
The sale to the consumer also depends on visual quality. All intermediate links in the food chain will also make great efforts to maintain the visual quality.
In recent months, a significant movement is developing to enhance "ugly" fruit and vegetables market. I've already talked about it.
Basically, that's fine, because it makes consumers aware that the appearance has no influence on the food value of the product, and for its flavor.
From the perspective of the farmer, it has ultimately not changed a lot since, although sales of non-standard products increased, its value is the same.
It might even be thought that it could play against him, insofar as these ugly products are sold in place of beautiful products. In fact the impact, to date, is negligible.
The visual appearance is now the subject of all healing done to the product, from the field to the display.
Organic production has escaped this diktat for years, but with the massification of production, the evolution is the same, with an easier and better paid marketing of the best products.
However, other quality criteria, often overlooked in the past show a huge protagonisme.
But this is another story…