Consumer Watchdog: Fresh fruit or far from it?

By Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

Josh Bartley-Smith, left, and Jason Brennan of Produce Pronto. Photo / Janna Dixon
Josh Bartley-Smith, left, and Jason Brennan of Produce Pronto. Photo / Janna Dixon

Think your fruit is fresh? The New Zealand apples currently gracing supermarket shelves were picked around seven months ago. The bananas were put on a boat in the Philippines or Ecuador mid-August and the Californian grapes and oranges are likely to be more than four weeks old.

Right now, the only truly fresh products in the fruit and vege section are rhubarb and hot-house grown capsicum and tomatoes. But everything still tastes good - thanks to technology that manipulates the natural ripening and rotting process.

Under-ripe fruit is picked and put into storage containers or cool houses where the oxygen is sucked out and carbon dioxide pumped in to press pause on cellular activity and slow the rotting process.

And ethylene gas, which fruit naturally produces at low-levels, is pumped into banana and avocado storage centres to kick-start the ripening process after the fruit is prematurely harvested.

Lincoln University horticulture lecturer Mike Morley-Bunker says it is like putting the produce into "hibernation" - and it means consumers can eat February's apple harvest throughout the year and enjoy exotic fruit despite the long sea journey between plantation and shopping basket.

"We've tended to lose the idea of seasonality," he says.

Fruit in long-term storage is nutritionally similar to fresh fruit, but flavour and texture can be compromised as time goes by, Morley-Bunker says. "That floury texture in an apple means it has been kept too long. Unfortunately, you don't see that from the outside. Peaches and nectarines from California are picked immature so they will survive the journey over here ... the problem is it may look pretty and feel soft but it doesn't taste too good."

Morley-Bunker says gases and climate control have been used in fruit storage since the 1970s and pose no health risk.

Mark Holmwood, of produce wholesaler Freshmax, says the real danger to fruit freshness started when the produce left the tightly controlled storage atmosphere.

"The reality is produce loses value every day. You can't hang on to it," he says.

EARLY RISERS GO FOR QUALITY

It's 4am and Jason Brennan and Josh Bartley-Smith are the first to arrive at fruit wholesaler Freshmax, nestled in an industrial patch of Mt Wellington.

In a couple of hours, the warehouse will be crowded with greengrocers, dairy owners and supermarket reps. But for now the business partners - the force behind fruit and vegetable delivery service Produce Pronto - have the place to themselves.

Inside, fluorescent vests must be worn to alert the forklift drivers skidding around, putting together a giant order for a supermarket chain. There are 28 tomato varieties - including the new "tomato berry" - and an entire aisle dedicated to apples, separated into giant barrels according to quality and breed.

After checking and taste-testing their orders, it's on to Turners and Growers and then the banana importers.

Quality and freshness is the life-blood of their business, so Brennan and Bartley-Smith get around every market, every morning. "The biggest challenge is building trust," Bartley-Smith says.

"Buying produce is a very personal thing. People like to pick up the fruit and feel it and choose which ones they want."

When it comes to the price of produce it can be tricky to compare apples with apples, Brennan adds.

"I can see how consumers get confused when it comes to price. You could offer apples for 49c a kg, but they will be the lowest quality grade. We are fresher, more convenient and better value than the supermarket or greengrocer."

A family pack, enough to serve five people for a week, costs $50 including delivery.

- Herald on Sunday

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