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California develops a higher ‘Standard’ for a tastier orange

Within days, the new crop of California oranges will hit the market and California growers are promising that they will deliver a tastier product because of the all-new California Standard.

Developed under the auspices of California Citrus Mutual, this new method of measuring the interior tasting quality of the fruit is almost a decade in the making. It has been designed by scientists and approved by the industry as well as the California Department of Food & Agriculture. The California Standard is the new standard by which all California Navels will be measured in an effort to ensure a better Navel orange eating experience and better sales results.

Previously, California Navels were required to meet a ratio measurement calculating a balance between acidity and Brix, which is typically defined as sweetness or sugar content. The new proprietary standard takes several other factors into account, including aroma and juiciness.

Joel Nelsen, president of CCM, said that years of research have shown the new method to be a much better predictor of consumer acceptance and in tune with today’s consumer, who has many more choices at his or her disposal than was the case when the old standard was developed.

“When we were kids,” Mr. Nelsen said, “the taste of an orange was compared against an apple and a banana.”

Now he said it has to stand up against many other items, including the Mandarin oranges and other citrus varieties grown by the same growers. Frankly, he said, the traditional California Navel orange wasn’t passing that test during the early part of the season.

“This all started about a decade ago when we started to take note of the fact that our sales from October to January 1 were lacking,” he said. “The holidays used to be a great time for us, but sales were lacking as consumers gravitated toward other fruits, including both the Spanish clementine and our own Mandarin oranges.”

CCM commissioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service and researchers at the University of California to find out why.

“They conducted thousands of interviews and taste tests, first with California consumers and then they replicated the tests with consumers from other areas,” he said. “What they found was remarkable. The next generation has a different definition of flavor than we do.”

Mr. Nelsen said that besides just the sugar or acid level, consumers identified other important factors for the taste experience, including aroma and juiciness. Subsequently, the researchers went back to the lab to see if they could develop a test that could calculate these factors and produce a better-tasting piece of fruit at the beginning of the season when the measurement is all important.

A Navel orange tree basically stores its fruit on the tree. Once the fruit reaches a level of ripeness early in the season, it can then be picked at anytime over the next six to nine months. Weather and marketing factors play an important role as each grower determines when to pick the groves and bring the fruit to market.

By Jan. 1, virtually all the fruit on all the trees throughout California has reached their peak flavor profile and can be picked at any time, Mr. Nelsen said. But in the first couple of months of the season it is a bit trickier, which is why the industry has always had a measuring tool comparing the acid and sugar ratio.

After many years of research, the scientists have come up with what CCM said is a better measurement tool and formula. Of course that didn’t end the discussion, but rather began it.

In the spring of 2011, CCM went out to the industry, held workshops and gauged grower interest. Overwhelming industry support followed, and a formal rule-making procedure began within the CDFA.

“At some point it became obvious that we weren’t going to get the new California Standard in place by the 2011-12 season,” Mr. Nelsen said. “We agreed to wait for implementation until this season.”

Interestingly, he said that to achieve the new California Standard does not require a change in cultural practices, but it does mean some changes in the timing of the picking of the crop.

“We discovered that some fruit that was being picked on October 15, for example, needs to stay on the tree a few weeks longer and should be picked around November 6. Conversely, there was some fruit being picked November 6 that should be picked on October 15.”

The CCM executive said that it has to do with soil type, climate and cultural factors, but growing methods do not need to be changed. Now that CCM has educated the grower to the new standard, it is setting its sights on the retailer.

“Of course we don’t have a huge budget, but we are spreading the message and so are the packers and shippers,” he said.

Ultimately, the goal is to give the consumer a better piece of fruit earlier in the season, according to Mr. Nelsen, who added, “If we do that, they will come back and repurchase sooner and we should note an increase in sales.”